We’d advise against reading this story over lunch.
New York City health inspectors found flies, roaches, signs of mice and other “critical” food safety code violations at 300 public school cafeterias during their most recent inspections, according to a Gothamist analysis of health department inspection data from the last year. That’s about one-fifth of the 1,400 school buildings run by the education department. Private schools have fared worse than their education department counterparts, the data shows. Since 2021, private-school inspections have turned up critical violations at double the rate of public schools.
One or two violations doesn’t necessarily translate into an outbreak of foodborne illness, according to health experts. But a closer look at the data shows that more than 230 schools were repeat offenders and had racked up critical violations over at least two inspections in the last two years. And multiple years’ worth of violations marked “critical” — a designation that includes pests, poor hygiene and potential cross-contamination — increases the risk of food poisoning, according to Donald Schaffner, a professor of food science and chair of the food science department at Rutgers University.
“If the same facility keeps getting dinged for the same thing, that’s a bad sign,” Schaffner said. “The focus should be on the critical violations because those are the ones that drive risk.”
School food hasn’t caused any documented medical issues, the education department said. And students interviewed by Gothamist were overall positive about the safety of their lunches — if not the flavor. Frances Sullender, a sixth-grader at Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Secondary School for Arts and Technology in Long Island City, Queens, bemoaned the quality of many of the menu items. Wagner was cited for signs of mice on its three most recent inspections.
“Mushy green beans, weird corn,” she said scornfully. “And vegan chicken nuggets, which everyone hates.”
New York City public schools serve more than 230,000 breakfasts and 550,000 lunches each day on average, according to education department data. The city budgeted close to $550 million last year on food services, a figure that includes both supplies and workers’ salaries. The free meals can be a lifeline for New Yorkers, about 15% of whom are food insecure.
City health inspectors visit each school’s cafeteria at least once per year to ensure staff are following food safety rules. They ding schools for a huge list of possible offenses, ranging from the aforementioned pests to missing CPR posters and naked lightbulbs.
“New York City Public Schools is proud to work closely with the Department of Health to ensure that our young people are served healthy, nutritious and delicious meals each day,” education department spokesperson Jenna Lyle said in an email. “Our inspections help us to ensure that our hardworking and dedicated staff are following all best practices and address any issues that may arise.”
Stuyvesant High School, a prestigious specialized school in Lower Manhattan, was one of the “critical” repeat offenders. It’s been dinged for flies or mice in four of its five most recent health inspections.
“Filth flies or food/refuse/sewage-associated (FRSA) flies present in facility’s food and/or non-food areas. Filth flies include house flies, little house flies, blowflies, bottle flies and flesh flies,” the school’s inspection results read.
Luca Ottaviano, a 10th grader at Stuyvesant, was unfazed by the reports of pests.
“I’ve seen mice in school before, but I didn’t really think too much of it,” he said. “It’s New York City at the end of the day. Some of it is out of [their] control.”
Schaffner said that New York City’s aging school buildings can make pest control extra-challenging.
“It’s a little bit of a yuck factor,” he said, “Sometimes it’s hard. If you have an aging facility that doesn’t have good infrastructure, if you can’t keep the critters out, they’re just going to keep coming in.”
On average, private schools racked up more critical violations than public schools, the data shows. Inspectors found roughly one critical violation during each private school inspection, while public school cafeterias yielded about half as many.
Adams prioritized school food at the beginning of his mayoral term, most notably with his “vegan Fridays” initiative. Most schools have a salad bar, and a handful also offer halal meals. Around 100 school buildings have enhanced food court-style cafeterias after a $50 million investment announced in late 2022.
But the school food budget was slashed by $60 million in November, Chalkbeat reported, which is now putting popular dishes like burritos, salads and fries on the chopping block for February’s menu.
Adams is “trying to remove cookies, fries, nuggets,” said Queenie Cao, a Stuyvesant student who swore off school lunch last year after finding a worm in her grab-and-go salad. “What are we supposed to eat?” she added. “His stale bread?”
But most students interviewed by Gothamist said that while they weren’t blown away by the taste of their food, it was safe to eat and did give them the fuel they needed to finish the school day. Ninth-grader Charlie DeBlois praised the Stuyvesant cafeteria’s “fancy” fruit salad offerings and offered a nuanced opinion of the other menu items.
“It’s just very mass-produced,” he said. “So I feel like it’s not good for you, but I don’t feel bad after eating it.”