[Metroactive Features]

[ Features Index | San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

[whitespace] Child's Play

When money's short, cut services to the nonvoters first

By Will Harper

JOE NASH, a 29-year veteran of Los Angeles' environmental health agency, recalls a time when his county attempted to inspect public school cafeterias twice each year. That all changed about a decade ago, says Nash, an environmental health services manager.

Because of a major staff shortage, L.A. health officials weren't able to routinely inspect the 35,000 regular restaurants in the county. School cafeterias, considered relatively clean, seemed like a good place to scale back inspections. Los Angeles chose to only inspect cafeterias if someone complained.

"We weren't finding a lot of health problems at the schools," explains Nash. "They were doing very well."

Los Angeles may be the most extreme example of an environmental health agency in the state making school food safety a low priority, but it's not alone.

The California Conference of Directors of Environmental Health surveyed agencies throughout the state earlier this year to see how often they were actually inspecting school cafeterias. Justin Malan, the group's executive director, reported that responding agencies conducted school inspections from once a year to once every three years. The average rate, he says, was one inspection every two years.

Malan and some environmental health directors blame the relatively infrequent inspection rates on legal and economic obstacles.

According to Malan, there is an ongoing debate as to whether the bible of food safety, the California Uniform Retail Food Facilities Law (CURFFL), applies to public school cafeterias.

The food safety law, originally enacted more than two decades ago, covers everything from cooking temperatures and storage to how employees should wash their hands and dishes.

The law, however, doesn't explicitly say school food facilities are subject to its provisions. That has resulted, Malan says, in counties taking differing positions as to whether CURFFL applies to school cafeterias.

Santa Clara County health officials believe it does.

"I believe [CURFFL] was intended to cover everyone who serves food, including schools," argues Ben Gale, Santa Clara County's environmental health chief.

Malan says some schools in the state have resisted CURFFL because it would potentially require them to make expensive equipment and structural upgrades to meet the letter of the law.

Santa Cruz is one county where officials believe they don't have the authority to enforce the state's food-safety requirements in school cafeterias, says Diane Evans, the county's head of environmental health. Santa Cruz inspects its public school cafeterias once a year, while it inspects restaurants four times a year.

Evans also raises another reason why some counties like Santa Cruz don't check up on cafeterias as much as regular restaurants: Money.

Unlike restaurants and commercial food vendors, public agencies like schools don't legally have to pay fees for inspection services. That's problematic for environmental health agencies, which in the post-Proposition 13 era rely almost exclusively on fees to fund their programs. A handful of health agencies like Santa Clara and Alameda receive money from their county general funds to subsidize school inspections. Others charge higher fees to private businesses.

"There has been no funding for [inspections of public school cafeterias]," reasons Evans, "and there has been no clear authority to do them."

[ San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the October 5-11, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.