Problem Solvers uncover why Henrico had 159 health code violations in school cafeterias

RICHMOND, Va. – Just how clean are the cafeterias where your children or grandchildren eat every day?

CBS 6 Problem Solvers uncovered that the state has cited several local school districts for health code violations this year.

Henrico parent Jennifer Godzwa seemed taken aback when we told her about our research into health code violations at school cafeterias across Central Virginia.

"My first thought is... surprise," Godzwa said. "I guess it's good that we have the media to do stories like this so that we can kind of keep things in line."

CBS 6 combed through the Virginia Health Department's inspection portal to investigate whether the state cited any area schools for health code violations, and what we found surprised the parents we spoke with.

"I wouldn't have guessed that," Godzwa said.

As of early October, the state had cited Henrico County for 159 health code violations in school cafeterias this year.

In Richmond, 30 health code violations, and in Chesterfield, which is a comparable size to Henrico, just 16 violations.

"Do you feel like you were slipping in making sure that health and safety were priorities in the cafeterias?" CBS 6 investigative reporter Melissa Hipolit asked Henrico County Public Schools spokesperson Andy Jenks.

"No, I don't think we would consider that a fair way to describe it. I think we acknowledge that we're not perfect," Jenks replied.

Many of the violations are minor, but there are some that are serious, such as staff not keeping food at the proper temperature, dirty utensils and slicers, and hand washing issues with employees.

"Anytime a health inspector notices something it shouldn't, that's concerning to us, so we have to take steps to correct that immediately, which we did, furthermore, make sure our training is in place so that staff understand what the expectations of the health inspectors are so those violations don't repeat themselves again," Jenks said.

"Are you confident that what students are eating in Henrico County Schools is safe?" Hipolit asked Jenks.

"Yes, there is no hesitation at all when it comes to that question," Jenks responded.

Jenks agreed to an interview, but only after the school system sent out letters to parents at the schools where the state found cafeteria violations.

Some parents question that timing.

"I did get the email and I was wondering what prompted that," said parent Geri Isenberg.

"Is there any reason you didn't do that {send letters} prior to me contacting you?" Hipolit asked Jenks.

"We do sense an evolution in what the expectations are in our parent community, and that if anything is going to be out there in one way shape or form, that the parent community hear from the school first," Jenks replied.

CBS 6 also talked to the head of the Richmond and Henrico Health Departments about the large disparity in violations between school districts.

Dr. Danny Avula, with the Virginia Department of Health, praised Henrico's cafeteria services and downplayed the differences.

"I don't think the variations in this specific data can be extrapolated to say one system is doing better than another," Dr. Avula said.

He said one reason why is that Henrico does more on-site food prep than other school systems.

"When you do food prep on site that does create more potential opportunities for there to be violations according to the state food code," Avula said.

Avula also said each district has its own inspectors, which could account for the variation.

"Some districts are gonna err on the side of, yeah, we're going to document every single thing that we see, and others may say you know I've been in this restaurant four times this year, this just happened to be a particular moment in time, and so they may leave that off the inspection report," Avula said.

In fact, he said our investigation started a conversation in the state environmental health office about ensuring that all inspections are equal.

"I fully expect there will be more conversation to come about how are we doing standardization, what counts as a violation, and what doesn't, and how do we better ensure a consistency in practice across the state," Avula said.

To take a look at the inspection reports from the cafeterias in your child's school, visit this website.

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