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Mediterranean Quinoa Salad. Bellingham Public School district is a finalist in the Recipes for Healthy Kids competition.

12 Seattle schools have critical food safety violations. It’s worst for low-income kids

You don't find smiley- or grim-face health inspection signs on school cafeterias in King County like you do at area restaurants.

But a look at the county’s health inspection data shows that a dozen Seattle public schools received “unsatisfactory” ratings on their last cafeteria inspections.

Children eat about 4 million meals and snacks from Seattle Public Schools lunchrooms each year.

By federal mandate, county health departments across the state examine school kitchens twice annually to make sure they’re up to code.

"Typically, we see great scores from schools in regards to food safety violations," said Leanne Eko, who directs Child Nutrition Services at the Washington state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Eko said statewide, cafeteria workers are typically highly-trained, and there are multiple levels of oversight. "There’s always a standing joke about how it’s the cleanest and the safest place to eat in a community," she said.

In the Highline School District, just south of Seattle, there were no recent “critical” food safety violations at its cafeterias listed on the Public Health - Seattle & King County website.

But KUOW found that in Seattle Public Schools, it was a different story.

Eleven cafeterias, serving 12 schools, had “unsatisfactory” ratings on their latest inspections due to one or more "red critical" violations, like food at unsafe holding temperatures, faulty hand-washing stations and workers lacking the proper training or food-handling permits.

Eyob Mazengia, who oversees such inspections for the health department, pulled up the details of an infraction an inspector noted this year at a Seattle elementary school.

"It says ‘Do not serve pizza and ravioli that have been in walk-in since at least yesterday,’” Mazengia said.

Day-old pizza and ravioli are theoretically healthy, Mazengia said, but not if they’re stored in a warm refrigerator. At this elementary school, part of the walk-in cooler was 50 degrees, "and maximum temperature allowed in a cold-holding unit is 41," he said.

That cafeteria got an “unsatisfactory” rating.

Seattle Public Schools turned down requests for an interview for this story, but said in a written statement:

"We continue to be confident in our processes that rigorously follow health department guidelines and enable us to provide safe, nutritious food for our students...

"In this case, presenting anyone with simply large numbers about SPS health code violations could be misleading unless the data was also accompanied by detailed facts. Those detailed facts would show that, taken on the whole, the infractions identified by the health department are, for the most part, routine infractions that any food service establishment experiences; the infractions at SPS occur at a pace that is common to all food service establishments; and the infractions at SPS are always promptly corrected."

Still, KUOW found that some school cafeterias have had repeated health code violations for years.

West Seattle Elementary School has had violations on seven of its last ten cafeteria inspections. Lowell Elementary School has had violations on nine out of ten inspections.

In Seattle, as in many districts, a central kitchen now prepares most of the food served at schools, much of which is reheated in cafeteria kitchens.

The central kitchen is also inspected, and it, too, had violations on most of its last 10 inspections, including inadequate hand-washing stations and unsanitary food contact surfaces.

Eko said Seattle's track record is quite different from the squeaky-clean cafeteria kitchens she's familiar with in other districts around the state.

"I’m surprised by what you shared about what you found in the Seattle area," Eko said. "It’s a little disturbing to hear that."

There have been foodborne illnesses traced to Washington colleges and universities in recent years, according to CDC data, including salmonella, E. coli, and norovirus, but none linked to local K-12 cafeterias. Eko said an outbreak could be serious, however, "because with any kind of foodborne illness, we know that it has a larger effect on young kids."

Low-income kids, who eat three-quarters of the meals served in Seattle Public Schools, would be the most likely children affected by foodborne illness. Reduced-price or free school meals are, for some children, their only reliable daily source of nutrition.

In Seattle, cafeterias in schools with primarily low-income students are also the most likely to have "unsatisfactory" food safety ratings in their latest inspection. In the 2017-18 school year, 32 percent of the district's schools were majority low-income, yet 75 percent of the schools with cafeterias recently rated "unsatisfactory" are majority low-income.

In 2016, an outside study the district commissioned of its Nutrition Services operations identified the food temperature control problems that often lead to "unsatisfactory" ratings.

"The district lacks equipment and supplies to maintain temperatures on the serving line. Staff has difficulty keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold throughout the serving period," researchers found upon visiting Seattle school cafeterias. "In several cases, it appeared that food safety might be in question."

In the long-run, King County is expected to require schools to display the same “smiley-face” signs as restaurants, but Mazengia said there’s no timeline yet.

Until then, University of Washington food safety lecturer Charles Easterberg said families should do their own research, starting with pulling up inspection reports on their county health department website.

If they see health code violations, he said, “they can go to the school and ask for elaboration, and they can also call the health department and they can ask for them to interpret. Then the last thing they do is say, 'Okay, what has been done about it, and what’s going to be done about it?'"

To look up a school cafeteria's health inspection history, search by name or address at your county health department website:

Public Health Seattle & King County

Kitsap Public Health District

Snohomish Health District

Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department

Whatcom County Health Department