13 Investigates: Complaints prompt health inspection at RPS 205 schools

ROCKFORD (WREX) – Students and parents at East High School reached out to 13 News, saying they were unhappy with the quality of food that was served during lunches this year.  Students shared pictures, which have since gone viral online, sparking public concern about the quality of food preparation at RPS 205 kitchens. This public concern paired with a call from a concerned parent to the Winnebago County Health Department prompted health inspections at both Guildford and East High School.

Using a Freedom of Information Act Request, 13 News attained copies on Wednesday of the most recent inspections at all RPS 205 High Schools.  A day later, we sat down with both the school district and health department to go over the findings of these inspections.

The inspection at East High School was completed on September 20th at 11:12 a.m. According to both RPS 205 and the Winnebago County Health Department, RPS 205 kitchen staff was not made aware inspectors would be visiting that day.Inspectors looked into the claim of burger patties being served to students partially raw.

According to the report:

“The pre-cooked hamburger patties are reheated to 165 degrees or higher and held in au jus that is colored with cherry extract.  Jill (certified manager of the kitchen) stated they have ordered au jus that is brown in color.  All food on the line today measured well above the 135 degree Fahrenheit holding temperature. Complaint inconclusive.”

13 News asked the RPS 205’s Executive Director of Nutrition Services, Renee Slotten-Beauchamp, about these burger patties.

“It isn’t a raw product, we do not serve a raw product,” says Slotten-Beauchamp. “So the hamburger patties were not raw products. What we do is we do cook them in a broth to keep them as in any institutional cooking if you hold them on the line for a period of time food tends to get hard. We don’t want little hockey pucks for students to be eating hockey puck hamburger patties so we put broth in them and then we steam them. Sometimes when they are shingled, the redness comes out as the air hits parts of it. The redness comes out, it’s not raw it’s cooked. So there might be an appearance of that.”

A similar complaint was launched by students and parents at Guilford High School concerning chicken patties students believed to be raw/partially cooked. The Winnebago County Health Department conducted an investigation September 20th at 12:20 p.m. Again, RPS 205 staff was not made aware inspectors would be in their kitchen that day.

According to the inspection report:

“I asked Billie (certified kitchen manager) about the pre-cooked breaded, chicken patties that are in question.  She stated that she did not know why one of the chicken patties appeared to be under cooked since they come from the manufacturer pre-cooked.  Each batch of this product, as all other meat, is probed with a metal stemmed thermometer to ensure the temperature rises to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit during the reheating process.  Ann, the general manager over several of the RPS 205 kitchens stated today they will determine whether or not they will continue buying pre-cooked breaded, chicken patties from their current supplier.

When it comes to the chicken patties, Slotten-Beauchamp had this to say: ” They are pre-cooked. Again, I believe they were shingling those as well so it could have been an overlapping and that appearance. But the color and coagulation of some of those protein items turns it a little pink color. Just like when you’re at home sometimes when you’re cooking chicken, chicken turns pink. It’s done, but sometimes that’s the coagulation. Especially when it’s held. Not necessarily the cooking process, but when you’re holding it. That’s sometimes when the color comes through.”

However, these reports did reveal infractions inspectors found at both East and Guilford’s kitchens. At Guilford’s kitchen, inspectors say they found some items not properly cooled to the right temperature.

The report states the following:

“Yogurt and cheese stored in the meat walk-in cooler measure above 41F.  Cheese moved to the freezer.  Yogurt moved to a working milk cooler.  All the food stored in the main walk-in cooler measured above 41F. Salads with meat stored in the big one door cooler on the line measure 48F. Discarded. Milk stored in the largest milk cooler measure 45F.”

“On that particular day it was of the particularly hot and humid days,” says Slotten-Beauchamp. “And with staff being in and out of the fridge it could have brought that temperature down faster than normal. As soon as staff was alerted to it, the staff took that product and moved it, it was within the safety time period and moved it over to another refrigerator. I believe they also disposed of a few items. That’s one of the things we try and stress with the staff. When you go into a walk in cooler of freezer that you try and gather everything you need at once and bring it your work station. You don’t open and shut the refrigerator, just like at home. That’s part of our training methods.”

Meanwhile at East’s kitchen, inspectors say they also found issues within one of the fridges.

The report states the following:

“Deli-style turkey stored above the load limit of the cold well @40-45F. Moved to a working cooler.  All cold potentially hazardous food must be kept at 41F or below until served.”

“In the serving lines, the pans were set out and they probably had stacked it a little higher to make the lines move faster,” says Slotten-Beauchamp. “So we were probably above that zone line a little bit. They should take a look at that, and that’s one of the things we’ll stress with the staff. To take a look at that and move some of the product and have another one back up in another refrigerator close to the line. The air and especially on a warm day that like, it can heat the product up faster.”

When it comes to these concerns students may comes across as the receive their daily lunches, Slotten-Beauchamp stresses students need to communicate directly with staff.

“This is an education facility and we want students to be good consumers. Just like when you go out to eat some place and your food isn’t to your liking you send it back. We want students to do the same with us. If they look at their plate and it’s not to their liking, or they taste it and it’s not what they expect, to take it back to our staff and ask for something different. And also, show the staff if there’s something wrong with it. And we have choices, and they can either have the same choice and another choice that day. ”

She says staff is coached to listen to and understand student’s complaints.  She says the last thing they want is their students to go hungry.

“We really stress customer service with our staff and what we want them to do is ask what’s wrong, so we can learn from that as. We want to take that item. We don’t want to throw the items away and then just say, “There was something wrong with my lunch.” We want them to bring it back to us so we can visibly see it because we’re all adult learners, so we can see it. And also so we can improve. We take that, and we hold it and take a look it to see what was wrong with it and how we can improve that product.”

The Winnebago County Health Department says schools are a top priority when it comes to what facilities they monitor.

“These institutions typically serve more than one individual they’re serving many, and again the potential increases based on the meals they serve,” says WCHD Public Health Director Dr. Sandra Martell. “They’re serving to a vulnerable population so they get some of our highest attention when we see a complaint come in”

When it comes to the inspections at East and Guilford, Martell says she’s pleased with the results.

“We were on site, we identified it, and they worked with us to correct it immediately. Most of our goals are to correct it immediately, to take whatever may be unsafe out of the serving lines and distribution to the child or public.”

13 News sat down with two students who first alerted the station to their concerns about food quality. Both students say in the past, they’ve brought complaints to RPS 205 staff, but don’t feel their concerns were heard. East Junior Elizabeth Martinez said she and a friend asked a worker to look at chicken they didn’t feel had been cooked through.

“She was saying we cook it to 165, we keep it at that temperature and we serve it. It is not raw,” says Martinez. “They didn’t offer her another sandwich or anything.”

East Junior Connor Fowler says he feels like the quality of the food at lunch meals have gone down this year.

“I just feel like it got worse,” says Fowler. “The burgers are now gray. The food has just tremendously decreased in value and it’s not good. For me it’s the chicken, it’s a weird texture. It’s mushy. The meat it’s not a good ‘melt-in your-mouth, it dissolves.”

Both students say because of their concerns, they don’t eat the school lunches, but instead bring their own.  However, they worry for other students who can’t afford to bring their own lunch from home. Fowler agrees with his classmate, saying he doesn’t feel like staff has listened in the past. Something he hopes changes.

“We’re disregarded essentially,” says Fowler. “I’m hoping that they listen more. That this brings attention, that we shouldn’t go unnoticed. We are their consumers their customers, even though they might disagree the customer is always right. So just in case give us a new patty, a new sandwich, a new lunch, anything that will make us feel more comfortable eating lunch because as of right now I don’t eat lunch anymore because of it.”

If you have concerns about any food preparation facility, you can call the Winnebago County Health Department at 815-720-4100, or find more information here.

 

Mary Sugden

Mary Sugden

Investigative Reporter

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