LOVELAND, Oh - Once students start making their way through the lunch line at Loveland Intermediate School later this month, observant boys and girls are sure to ask about the framed award that sits atop the Tiger Jr. Salad and Hot Veggies table.
The certificate reads “Hamilton County Clean Kitchen Award,” and the school has one for 2011, 2012 and 2013.
“The kids ask, ‘What’s that mean?’” said Kris Tracy, Loveland Public Schools’ district food service coordinator. “We tell them, ‘Well, our kitchen floors are probably cleaner than the kitchen floors at home.’ When the kids ask, it gives our staff self pride.”
It’s a sense of pride that food service staff in all the district’s schools share: Every cafeteria in the district has won the county award each year since 2011.
“It is a big deal for us,” Tracy said.
A WCPO Digital analysis found that clean kitchens are a big deal for schools across the Tri-State. School cafeterias generally got good marks in an examination of the latest full year of health department inspections across four jurisdictions representing the city of Cincinnati and six counties.
You can search for schools’ 2012 inspection reports on this WCPO Digital database by inputting your community or a school name.
Mobile users, please use this link to view the searchable database:
“Most of the schools do pretty well,” said Jeremy Hessel, environmental health director at Hamilton County Public Health. “They care a lot about the product they serve, how they serve it and who they’re serving it to.”
Hamilton County’s Clean Kitchen Award is given to food service operations where inspectors have found fewer than three violations in the two years prior to each award and no critical or repeat violations during those time frames.
Winners also must have at least two members of their staffs take a Level 1 food safety handler class. And at least one staff member must have current ServSafe certification, which requires completion of a more in-depth food safety program.
The county has 16 repeat winners who have won the award each year since the program started in 2011. Seven are school cafeterias. Mobile user can view the list of winners here: http://www.wcpo.com/dpp/news/local_news/Dirty-Dining-Hamilton-Countys-Clean-Kitchen-Award-Winners
'Very Meticulous' Staffs Keep Kitchens Clean
While other jurisdictions in the Tri-State don’t give similar awards, officials at the region’s health departments all agreed that school cafeterias tend to have some of the cleanest kitchens their inspectors see.
Cafeterias tend to be well managed because of a focus on internal training and the years of experience that employees often have, said Ted Talley, environmental health manager for the Northern Kentucky Health Department.
Clermont County’s Rob Perry put it this way:
“If you look at the average demographic of a cafeteria worker, it’s typically this little old lady, very conscientious, hasn’t missed a day of work in 30 years or whatever, and they’re very meticulous with a very strong work ethic.”
It helps, of course, that most school cafeterias are preparing only one hot meal a day, and that the range of food prepared is limited, said Perry, director of environmental health in Clermont County.
“You consider any other restaurant, an Appleby’s or whatever, they’ve got lots of complexity going on in those kitchens,” he said. “There’s more opportunity for things to go awry.”
Schools also tend to have nicely equipped kitchens and first-rate equipment, Perry said, which also helps.
Of course, sometimes the experienced staff can be a "two-edged sword," said Dale Grigsby, supervisor for the city of Cincinnati's food safety program.
"You run into a situation occasionally where people say, 'Well, I've been doing it this way for 30 years.' Well, they've been doing it wrong for 30 years," he said. "And getting someone to change that can cause some issues."
But, for the most part, school officials say the experienced staff makes the biggest difference in keeping their cafeteria kitchens clean.
The cafeteria manager at St. James School on Cheviot Road in White Oak has worked there since 2000, and one of her employees has been at the school for 30 years or more, said Assistant Principal Jeffrey Fulmer.
St. James is another three-year Clean Kitchen Award winner, and the school promotes that recognition, he said.
“Because we’re a private school, a Catholic school, when I’m touring new families, definitely the cafeteria is a selling point for us,” Fulmer said.
Tracy said the recognition is good for the Loveland district’s food service employees.
“They want to be known for more than just the lunch lady who put mashed potatoes on my plate,” she said.
'We Don't Want Them Sick'
But it also underscores the importance of student safety as it relates to food-borne illness and food allergies, she said.
Each day, every school’s head cook reads the manufacturers’ labels for everything on the lunch menu, Tracy said. The cooks make lists of anything that could trigger an allergic reaction, whether that’s wheat, peanut oil or the fact that a product was prepared in a facility that also prepares food containing nuts.
Then the head cooks give those lists to the cashiers.
When a student pays, the cashiers’ computer screens note whether that child has a food allergy. If the student does, the cashiers check the child’s lunch against their lists to make sure there is nothing on the tray that could cause problems, Tracy said.
The district also posts all the cafeterias’ nutrition information on its website to parents can check the ingredients, too, she said.
“We don’t want them sick, especially from anything they’ve eaten in our kitchen,” Tracy said. “Their safety is the most important thing to us.”
And posting the Clean Kitchen Awards, she said, is another way to communicate that loud and clear.