I9 INVESTIGATION: Nearly half of Iowa school cafeteria kitchens have health code violations

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG-TV9) -- Ice buildup in a freezer dripping on food, staff washing hands without soap, washing machines not working, and rusty utensils are just some of the observations health inspectors in Iowa have made this school year in cafeteria kitchens. And if these sound like merely isolated incidents, think again.

On the front lines at Mount Vernon High School making sure the meals made are safe to consume is Marcia Purrington. She oversees the kitchens across all three buildings in the district. There is someone like her overlooking every school kitchen in Iowa. But despite their efforts, potentially dangerous errors happen.

Reports filed with the state call those "risk factor violations." Inspectors like Chase Moffitt, with the Linn County Public Health Department, look out for those mistakes, known as "risk factor violations."

"A risk factor violation is a violation that the CDC has identified as being something that is directly correlated to the spread of food borne illnesses," said Moffitt. "So that is something that we are absolutely out to protect."

In 2015, contaminated meat at a pre-cooked staff lunch sickened dozens of teachers at Des Moines' Roosevelt High School, forcing it to cancel class for a day. Testing could not determine if the contamination came from the caterer, or how the meat was handled at the school. I9 searched through 768 health inspection records completed this school year inside cafeterias, and they reveal 47% of schools had at least one health code violation.

Some records show some schools had significantly more problems identified than others. For example, Central City Community Schools had five risk factor violations identified. And inspectors found six violations each at both Anamosa and Monticello high schools. But Van Buren Elementary in Cedar Rapids had the most in the TV9 viewing area, with 8 violations found last fall. Eight is a tie for second for the most of any elementary school in the state, based on inspection records -- a near top place finish that worries parents.

"I feel like somebody gets lazy around one or whatever, I get it. But you start getting two, three, four, we're talking eight -- that sounds like somebody might want to address it," one parent told us.

Problems inspectors found include no date mark on an open bag of lettuce, rust on the frame of a lettuce cutter, build-up and debris on the floor and walls of the kitchen, and a washing machine without a large enough air gap.

"Safety is always our top priority and none of these are in any way related to student health or safety," said Suzy Ketelson, director of food & nutrition services for the Cedar Rapids Community School District.

Shortly after TV9 began asking questions about Van Buren's violations, the school sent a letter home to parents.

"I made the decision to share the information with you so you learn about it from the school first and not from a TV story" reads the letter signed by principle Kent Ryan. It points out many of the issues uncovered during the last inspection, but it does not mention inspections have found 19 different violations since at least 2014.

"When you have aging facilities, non-urgent items are put on a list for repair, so every item addressed, everything was addressed," said Ketelson.

Before you think that health inspectors hold schools to an impossible standard of food safety, consider this -- the Mount Vernon school district hasn't had a single risk factor violation identified at any school this academic year.

"It was impressive," said Purrington. "I'm very proud of my staff."

Yet, even she will tell you it hasn't always been that way. This is the first school year she can recall in her 18 years on that job that every cafeteria came back with no issues found. Her advice for schools hoping to follow in Mount Vernon's footsteps:

"I just think, you know, as long as everyone is on the same page that you all know what the expectations are and you don't have to guess what somebody wants, so it seems to work good here," said Purrington.

Officials with the Cedar Rapids Community School District tell TV9 it addresses any errors found in inspections, and is not aware of any student ever getting sick from eating at Van Buren.

However, they concede that gap around the washing machine will likely continue being a repeat violation for the foreseeable future, because of cost. They report it would be a $14,000 fix.

If you would like to see what health inspectors found at your child's school or favorite eatery, click here.