School Safety: Unsafe Food

Published March 1, 2004

California may have a problem with keeping school bathrooms clean, but Chicago has a problem with keeping school kitchens clean.

Late last year, food operations at 13 Chicago schools were suspended after city inspectors found mouse feces–and rat feces in some cases–in school kitchens and classrooms. In January, Chicago Public Schools officials ordered a “top-to-bottom scouring” of the district’s more than 600 schools to protect student health, although schools CEO Arne Duncan stressed there had been no evidence of food contamination at any of the schools.

The problem with rodents is of particular concern because of the diseases they carry, according to Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Al Sanchez.

“If we allow them to get to our food source, there’s a strong possibility we might get something they are carrying,” he told the Chicago Tribune.

Duncan warned school employees if they could not keep their schools clean, “we’ll find someone else who can.” However, responsibility for school cleanliness is often fragmented among several parties, including contract maintenance service, contract food service, janitors, and building engineers.

A week before the Chicago school cleanup was announced, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich had blasted state officials for ignoring signs of food adulteration that ultimately resulted in 42 Illinois children becoming sick after eating chicken contaminated with ammonia. Two State Board of Education officials were charged with 45 counts of reckless conduct in connection with the incident.

“Because they ignored the risk, those children got sick,” said Blagojevich, proposing to centralize responsibility for food service inspections in the Illinois Departments of Agriculture and Public Health.

A 2002 Chicago Tribune investigation had revealed details of the ammonia contamination as part of a broader investigation into the safety of school meals. The newspaper found extensive safety violations not only in school kitchens and cafeterias but also in the processing plants that produce food for schools.

A subsequent report from the General Accounting Office showed a disturbing increase in the incidence of food poisoning in K-12 schools nationwide during a period when there was a significant decline in such incidents among the population at large. Two-thirds of the largest 59 outbreaks of food poisoning in schools during the 1990s were linked to the federal government’s school meal program.

“I think most parents believe the food their children are being served in school is closely watched over and that someone–the federal government, at least–would pull that food if it’s not safe. That’s simply not the case,” U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) told Education Week last year.

For more information …

Further information on food-related illness in K-12 schools is available in Darcia Harris Bowman’s June 4, 2003 Education Week article, “Tainted Food on the Rise in Cafeterias,” available online at

Information also is available from the May 2003 report from the General Accounting Office, “School Meal Programs,” available online at