The I-Team went through reports in Cumberland, Durham, Johnston, Orange, and Wake counties. Under state health department sanitation rules, a perfect score is 100. Schools can collect an extra two points if the staff takes a food safety course.
Wake County had the most schools scoring below 100 - with 66 percent falling below that mark. Durham was next with 62, then 47 percent in Orange, 23 percent in Johnston, and 15 percent in Cumberland.
Here are the links to the reports:
Experts say cafeteria violations can be dangerous for children as they're more susceptible to food-borne illness because their immune systems are not fully developed.
"It's important that … there isn't anything that's going to contribute to getting sick from the food they eat here," explained Lucy Schrum with the Wake County Health Department.
Some of the violations the I-Team found in the reports surprised us. They included:
- A dead mouse
- Mouse droppings
- Dead roaches and live ones
- Pink slime on ice machine
- Rusted kitchen equipment
- Layers of tree pollen on clean dishes
- No hair nets
- A cook sniffling and wiping her nose with the back of her hand
- Mold on hot dog and hamburger buns
- Moldy green peppers
- Moldy salsa
- Two-week-old food build-up on deli slicer
- Food left under leaking freezer condenser units
The Wake County Health Department allowed the I-Team to go along on an inspection at a school. Schrum explained how it works.
"We look for the critical violations first," she said. "Because those are the things that have the most direct relationship with food borne illness."
"Secondly, we look for good personal hygiene, that they're washing their hands when they're supposed to," Schrum continued.
The I-Team found personal hygiene was an issue at a Wake County middle school during an inspection earlier this year. A health inspector found: "An employee coughed into his right hand and proceeded working - touching equipment and food without washing his hands."
Our findings concerned one Wake County father when we showed him the reports.
"I expect cleanliness. I expect a healthy environment for our children. We send them to school trust that where they are gonna be eating at is gonna be a good environment for them," Alexander Marsh offered.
Marilyn Moody is in charge of all 157 school cafeterias in Wake County. We asked if employees are doing their jobs.
"We always have to be on our guard to watch what we're doing and watch one another and hold each other accountable," she explained.
Moody said she wants Wake County Schools to shoot for a score of 97 points, but the I-Team found many schools fall significantly below that.
Lufkin Road Middle School in Apex, for example, scored 89 earlier this year. It lost points for not keeping pizza hot, pudding cold, and for having dirty kitchen equipment.
Moody said when she saw that score she "sent in a troop and we cleaned it up."
Two months later, Lufkin Road scored 97.5 and maintains that score today.
But some Wake County schools had recurring violations. Durant Road Middle School in Raleigh was cited for rodent feces that were found in the same storage room during inspections this past August, April, and September of last year.
For such cases, Moody said the contractor the district uses for sanitation makes more visits.
"We'll send them back more often for schools that have recurring issues," she explained. "The importance is training and retraining, changing staff."
Moody pointed out that about half of all Wake County school cafeterias were inspected in September and the average score was 99 points - which includes the extra two points for education training.
Wake County schools are subjected to more than just health department inspections. The school system's private contractor checks for cleanliness every month. When a school gets a low score, the staff can be retrained, sent to a different school, or even fired.
"We're always getting better," said Moody. "Will we be perfect? I doubt that time will ever come … but we're always faced with being as safe as we can, making sure that we serve healthy, safe food to children."
Moody says she eats in the cafeterias all the time and enjoys lunch.