How Clean Is Your Kid's Cafeteria?

School lunches
CBS/The Early Show
A new study shows that some school districts around the country aren't doing nearly enough to ensure that meals are cooked and prepared properly.

The Early Show national correspondent Hattie Kauffman traveled to Seattle where school cafeteria workers take hygiene very seriously for a joint series with the Evening News, "Safe Enough to Eat?"

"The first thing our staff do when they get to work in the morning is that they must put on a smock," said Anita Finch, nutrition services director of the Seattle school district.

Finch requires hairnets and gloves to prevent contamination. As a result, a recent study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest rated schools in the Seattle area No. 2 for food safety behind Fort Worth, Texas. The worst cafeterias are in Washington, D.C., and Hartford, Conn. The study says most districts flunked.

"The general state of America's school lunchrooms is pretty dire," said Ken Kelly of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "In fact, we had actually one particular school that had toxic substances stored in the school cafeteria."

A separate study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found three main reasons for food poisoning in schools: improper food storage, poor temperature maintenance and contamination by food handlers.

"It would be the last place parents would expect their children to get sick," said Jennifer Berg, a director of the food studies program at New York University. "Unless it's several kids, unless they are violently ill, unless they're rushed to an emergency room, in most cases, the parents don't attribute it to the school cafeteria."

In most cases cafeteria inspection records are available online. Parents can also contact their local health department if they think there's a problem with food safety or if they feel their child's stomachache may be food related. When in doubt about the safety or quality of your child's lunch, consider brown-bagging it.

Cafeteria managers say that the risk of food contamination is extremely small. And if something happens, there are computerized thermometers that can tell what food was stored at what temperature and at what time.

But even the best school districts can be fallible. A cafeteria worker in Seattle was spotted not wearing gloves.

The study recommends more health department inspections, wider access so parents can see the results and better monitoring of outbreaks when kids get sick. One encouraging sign is that students these days seem to be getting the message about food safety.

"Kids are reading labels, and they'll bring it to you if something's out of date," Seattle's Beacon Hill School cafeteria director Donna McCallister said.

"Safe Enough to Eat?" continues tonight when the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric visits a lab that guards against bio-terror attacks on our food supply.

For more information on the Center for Science in the Public Interest's study, click here.