TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: The sometimes-distasteful truth about cafeteria food

Sometimes public-records searches turn up back-room insider deals, kickbacks, golden parachutes and rigged contracts. And sometimes they turn up mouse poop in the gelatin.

Food-service establishments at K-12 schools and colleges (private ones included) may never be mistaken for fine dining, but they are subject to the same health inspection regime as five-star steakhouses. In almost every U.S. jurisdiction, it is the county health department that tracks the sanitation conditions at eateries in the community — and those reports are available to any member of the public on request.

Concerns over food-borne illness, which is estimated to sicken 48 million Americans each year (one out of every six people), have caused state and local authorities to seek better ways to alert consumers when food-service establishments cut corners on cleanliness.

New York, in fact, has begun making restaurants (including those on campus) post letter grades as a more helpful indicator than the traditional numerical score. (“Is a score of 85 good, or bad? And is it 85 out of 100 — or out of 500?”) As the New York Times reports, some college dining halls’ mediocre grades are souring patrons’ appetites — though, since some institutions require dorm-dwellers to purchase a meal plan, students may be a captive audience.

Examining cafeteria inspection reports is some of the easiest public-records work imaginable. The inspection agencies generally are happy to have the attention and are accustomed to making their records accessible, so there should be little of the customary pull-and-tug that seems to accompany every attempt to get documents from a school or college. (Some of the more forward-thinking schools even post copies of their inspection reports online, so there’s no excuse for journalists to overlook them.)

The contents of health inspection reports can of course be newsworthy — and so can their absence. Since 2004, Congress has required all K-12 schools receiving federal nutrition funding to submit to inspection at least twice a year and make the results public. But studies have shown spotty compliance with this requirement, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is assigned to monitor school cafeteria inspections, is unable to keep track of which schools are complying or to penalize those that aren’t. That’s why regular check-ins by journalists are especially essential to keep schools honest.

Student journalists have done a valuable public service calling attention to unsanitary food-handling practices in their campus eateries. Readers and viewers may not always relate to dense investigative reports about schools’ purchasing, investment or construction programs — as essential as those stories are — but everyone recognizes that rodent droppings in the kitchen are bad news. If you are looking for a simple public-records project that is almost guaranteed to yield interesting results, reviewing the health inspection reports of school cafeterias is like shooting fish in a barrel — or blue jays in a meat locker.

(And P.S., sometimes the food isn’t as bad as people think — and publishing a clean health inspection report can also help dispel urban myths about what’s really in that meatloaf.)