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Health inspections reveal hundreds of violations in RI school cafeterias

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When your child buys a school lunch, you count on it coming from a clean kitchen, but inspection records reviewed by Target 12 show hundreds of health code violations this school year, including a rodent problem in East Greenwich.

“For some reason this year, we’ve seen a lot of rodent droppings,” said Cathy Feeney, chief of the retail food service program at the R.I. Department of Health.

While the health department could not provide a specific number, A Target 12 review of the first round of inspections this school year revealed at least 450 health violations.

But the number is likely much larger, as 56 schools have been marked for re-inspection, and some have been inspected multiple times.

At Cole Middle School in East Greenwich, inspectors found droppings behind the stove, behind the steamer, in the corner of a dry storage room, and in the dishwasher, according to an inspection report.

At the district’s Meadowbrook Farms Elementary School, rodent droppings were discovered in the corner of the dish-washing room, in the storage room and behind the grease trap.

Records show inspectors returned to both schools several times in October and November and again found rodent droppings.

Target 12 obtained a sternly worded letter from the health department to Victor Mercurio, the East Greenwich Superintendent, demanding “assistance with an ongoing issue regarding rodent activity.”

According to the letter, the “department made an unsuccessful effort to correct this widespread concern.”

“It’s bad, but it doesn’t directly cause food borne illness unless the droppings are actually in the food,” Feeney said.

Mercurio told Target 12 he never saw the letter from the health department. He declined requests for an interview on camera, but said in an email, “Our custodians and our food services vendor have been vigilant about inspecting and cleaning.”

Mercurio also said the district is working with a pest control company, and noted the most recent inspections showed only old rodent droppings. Records confirm a pest control company has visited both schools.

“The matter is being addressed actively and comprehensively,” Mercurio said.

East Greenwich is the only district to receive such a letter from the department of health following an inspection, but it’s not the only district where signs of rodents have been discovered this year. Communities including Barrington, Pawtucket, Providence, and Woonsocket have also been flagged for pest problems.

“We might go back two and three times to the same school if there’s an issue, just until they get it right,” Feeney said.

Across the state, inspectors also found other issues including debris on surfaces, dumpsters in the wrong place and appliances and floor tiles in poor repair.

Several schools were also forced to toss food because of “temperature violations,” meaning the food was not cold enough or hot enough to prevent potential foodborne illness from bacteria.

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When health inspectors went to Cunningham Elementary School in Pawtucket, they discovered boxes of food labeled “keep refrigerated or frozen” sitting out at room temperature. The school had “insufficient refrigeration equipment” and was ordered to fix the problem immediately, according to an inspection report.

“Schools are really important because we have a lot of little kids,” Feeney said. “If one thing goes wrong, a lot of people can get sick.”

“We see a lot of different types of violations, but I have to say in general the schools are pretty good,” she added.

None of the violations discovered in any of the schools have resulted in the closure of a cafeteria, but many have triggered a re-inspection. Federal regulations require school cafeterias to be inspected twice a year, but the health department acknowledged it does not have a perfect record.

According to records Target 12 requested, last year the health department completed 794 inspections at 419 unique schools.

“Over 10 years ago, the USDA mandated a two times a year inspection, and at that point, we had seven inspectors so we knew we weren’t going to be able to go twice a year. But we knew we could get there at least once,” Feeney said.

Currently, the health department has 12 inspectors and Feeney said for years the state has also hired outside inspectors to help meet requirements.

Five schools have not been inspected yet this year because of scheduling issues, according to the health department.

“Every single year, we go to every single school. If there are any issues, we always follow up,” Feeney added.

Susan Campbell (scampbell@wpri.com) is the Call 12 for Action and Target 12 consumer investigator for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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