MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Mice poop in the pantry. Mold on the hot dog buns. Neither are on the menu, Whitney Achievement Elementary's nutrition officials assured us.
But it was a nutrition official's neglect that spurred one of the Frayser school's cafeteria workers to rat out its rodent problem to the WMC Action News 5 Investigators.
Right before Thanksgiving break, Cozette Wells, now a former cafeteria worker for the school at 1219 Whitney Ave., emailed the WMC Action News 5 Investigators to report molded buns and mice droppings in the cafeteria. In her email, she said she reached out to us because her supervisor, identified only as 'Ms. Brown,' told her to ignore the problem.
"She ignored it like it wasn't there," said Wells.
The WMC Action News 5 Investigators forwarded Wells' e-mail to the Environmental Health Services division of the Shelby County Health Department. Six days after Wells' initial email, a department environmentalist -- on surprise inspection -- confirmed Wells' claim of rodent droppings and molded bread in the school cafeteria.
"Two violations. One, the rodent droppings, a critical violation," said Dr. Tyler Zerwekh, Environmental Health Services administrator.
"I was right the whole time," Wells said.
"That's really nasty," said Frayser parent Marquita Durham. "Those children could get sick."
Leaders of the Achievement School District and Shelby County Schools nutrition services would not provide 'Ms. Brown' for interviews, but her boss said she failed to report the health code violations to him and to her other supervisors.
"If she had reported those concerns, they could have been corrected that particular day," said Shelby County Schools/Achievement School District Director of Nutrition Services Calvin Johnson. "There was a breakdown in communication."
Johnson allowed our own inspection of the school cafeteria. He visually confirmed the molded buns had been discarded, as well as the rack where they were stored. "Now we store our bread in one of the walk-in coolers," he demonstrated.
We also observed rodent bait traps installed outside the cafeteria's back door, where Johnson believes mice were breaching the building to enter the cafeteria's pantry.
"We verified that they do have a pest control operation," Zerwekh confirmed. "We can also confirm the molded buns were discarded during our inspection."
School cafeterias receive health scores, just like restaurants. On its initial inspection of Whitney Elementary's cafeteria after Wells' complaint, a health inspector issued the cafeteria an 85. It earned a 90 after its corrective action on the mice and mold.
Zerwekh said there is no evidence anything unsanitary was served to the school's students. Wells, by request, was transferred to another school cafeteria.