Although the lunches and breakfasts served at area schools vary from day to day, one thing remains constant -- local health departments will attempt to ensure the food is safe by conducting routine, unannounced school cafeteria inspections.
School cafeterias in the metro-east are inspected once, twice or three times each school year depending on the school's level of food handling.
Certified inspectors from the St. Clair County Health Department, Madison County Health Department and East Side Health District conduct the inspections using a one-page retail food sanitary inspection report sheet to check for 45 potential violations.
Fourteen of the 45 violations are considered critical and require cafeteria staff to take immediate action to correct.
The figures in the table that accompanies this article represent the latest inspections from last school year. While a majority of schools receive a score of 100, some schools do receive scores in the high 90s if minor violations are found or in the 80s if critical violations are discovered.
Most are reinspected after corrections are made.
Jennifer Meyer, of the St. Clair County Health Department, attributed the high scores for school cafeteria inspections to the schools' focus on the health of students.
Meyer said they know "what they need to do to keep a sanitary facility." Meyer is the director of environmental programs for St. Clair County Health Department.
The department's six certified food inspectors conducted 190 school cafeteria inspections last school year, according to Meyer.
"All schools are inspected twice at least," Meyer said. "Some may be done three times, depending on their risk category."
The number of school cafeteria inspections at an individual school depends on the school's category. A school that has extensive food handling is a category 1, or high risk; a school with some food handling is a category 2, or moderate risk, and a school that has no food handling is a category 3, or low risk.
"Everything that we do is two inspections minimum, even if it's a category 3, on all establishments no matter what it is," Meyer said.
Mary Cooper, of the Madison County Health Department, said more than 125 inspections are done during the 10-month school year.
In Madison County, Cooper said category 1 schools are inspected three times during a school year, category 2 schools are inspected twice and category 3 schools are checked once. The inspectors can show up unannounced at local schools at any time during the school year.
The four inspectors employed by the Madison County Health Department conduct the inspections, according to Cooper.
"They are looking for critical violations," she said. "They are making sure cold foods are cold; hot foods are hot, and everything is sanitized. They are looking for insects and making sure chemicals are properly stored."
Lindenwood University Foodservice in Belleville received the lowest cafeteria inspection score in St. Clair County last school year at 84 during an inspection in August 2012. Eight violations were found during the inspection, including one critical violation -- multiple hot food items were below the required 135 degrees. The university's foodservice received a score of 95 during its most recent inspection on May 21.
McKendree University in Lebanon scored a 90 during an inspection in September 2012. Two critical violations were found, including not enough refrigerator or hot storage and potentially hazardous food. During an inspection in June, McKendree scored a perfect 100.
Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville received a 92 during an August 2012 inspection. No critical violations were found, but five minor violations included the condition of the sinks, bathrooms and floors. In April, SWIC scored a 93.
During the 2012-13 school year, Wilson Elementary School in Granite City received the lowest cafeteria inspection score of 86 in Madison County, according to inspection records obtained by the Belleville News-Democrat.
The inspection conducted in September 2012 found three critical violations including potentially hazardous food as the temperature in the cooler measured at 54 degrees rather than the required 41 degrees; potential for cross contamination, raw meats were being stored over ready-to-eat food, and the presence of rodents or insects was found. When Wilson Elementary was reinspected on March 13, the school received a perfect score of 100.
Three other schools in Madison County received cafeteria inspection scores in the 80s last school year:
* Collinsville Middle School received a score of 87 during an inspection in January as three critical violations were found including hot food not at the proper temperature; wiping cloth sanitizing solution too weak, and three kitchen hand sinks without adequate hot/cold water available. The school received a score of 96 during an inspection in April.
* The University Restaurant at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville scored an 87 during an inspection in February. Inspectors found potentially hazardous food as salad bar items weren't at the proper cold temperature. During a recent inspection on Aug. 16, the University Restaurant scored a 97.
* Granite City Senior High received an 88 during an inspection in January, where two critical violations were found: The sanitizing solution for wiping cloths was too weak and proof of rodents was found. The high school got a 96 during an inspection in April.
State law requires a certified food manager to be on site at school cafeterias.
"All the schools have to have a certified food manager, and they all have them -- almost every person in the kitchen is a certified food handler," Cooper said. "I think that helps with the critical violations."
If issues are found, Cooper said cafeteria employees are expected to correct them immediately if possible and are sometimes given 24 hours to fix a problem if it requires outside assistance, such as if a refrigeration unit stops working.
A serious enough problem could cause the cafeteria to shut down. However, Cooper said that typically doesn't happen.
"Schools as a whole are pretty good," she said. "I can't remember a time we had to close down a school. They do really good."
Cooper, an environmental health services manager, has worked for the Madison County Health Department for 17 years. She oversees the inspectors and makes sure the inspections get done.
The East Side Health District conducts cafeteria inspections at more than two dozen schools in East St. Louis School District 189, Cahokia School District 187 and Brooklyn School District 188, according to Doug King, the district's environmental health director.
On average, King said East Side Health District does 60 school cafeteria inspections every school year.
The lowest inspection score for schools within East Side's jurisdiction last school year was 91, which Lincoln Middle School, East St. Louis Senior High School and Lovejoy High School all received as a result of critical violations.
Two critical violations were found at Lincoln Middle School in April, according to the inspection report. Employees failed to wash their hands before switching tasks, and rodent droppings were present.
Inspectors found two critical violations at East St. Louis Senior High in September 2012: All meats in a cooler measured at 50-55 degrees and a walk-in cooler measured at 55 degrees. One critical violation was found at Lovejoy High in December 2012 -- employees were found eating in food prep areas in the kitchen and not washing their hands or changing gloves before serving food.
"The schools do really well," King said.
Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org.