How Safe is School Cafeteria Food?

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MEDFORD, Ore. – Every day, the start of the lunch bell signals a mad rush. In a period of 15 minutes, hundreds of kids will go in one end of the line and out the other.

The school lunch is part of one of the largest food operations in the valley.

“We serve about 6,000 meals a day,” said Jeff Ashmun, Area General Manager for Sodexo.

The majority of the county’s school districts serve their meals through Sodexo. In Medford, those meals are started in one of three central kitchens before being heated, prepared, and served across 20 sites.

And each meal follows the same rule.

“What we want to do is create a situation where we’re actually cooking as close to service time as possible,” said Ashmun.

School cafeterias are unique in the food service industry. Unlike a restaurant, you know exactly when your customers will show, how many of them there are, and how long they’ll take to eat.

In other words, they can follow what food safety experts call the timing rule.

“If food is served and prepared within a 4-hour window, no more than a 4-hour window, it hasn’t had the chance to develop the kind of bacterial growth that can cause illness,” said Jackson County Health Inspector Brett Thomas.

Like restaurants, school food safety is overseen by Public Health. Those inspectors expect food not eaten to be thrown away or properly stored after each lunch period, among other things. In their biannual visits, they check out everything down to the chemicals in the soap and the temperature logs on the fridge.

They say in the past few years they’ve found very little to complain about.

“I do not recall a verified illness in a school in my tenure in Jackson County,” said Thomas.

But that doesn’t mean schools are perfect.

Inspection reports from other counties in the state have revealed slime, mold, and out-of-date foods. And those inspections, while available by public request, are often not visibly posted.

Food preparers admit that a single violation — an employee failing to wash their hands or a dishwasher operating at the wrong temperature — can negate all of their work.

“All you have is a large number of sick people, and obviously that’s the worst thing that could possibly happen,” said Ashmun.

In fact, inspectors say they have and do find things like dishwashers operating at the wrong temperature or the wrong concentration of bleach in a cleaning solution. But they say those are few and far between, have never been linked to a single illness, and are almost always easy and immediate fixes.

In fact, statewide reports have indicated Southern Oregon is ahead of the curve in lunchroom cleanliness.

While not perfect, health inspectors say the bottom line is that schools are generally safer than restaurants.