PALM HARBOR — The health inspector stared at the class full of fifth-graders and told them, in plain terms, that they were disgusting. That morning they had surely petted their dogs, or perhaps sneezed into their hands. They were now covered in germs.
"Does everyone have germs on them?" asked Kenny Christanto-Nagai.
"Oh, yes," said the state inspector, a man in a baseball cap named Mark Fragola.
"Have you heard that a dog's mouth is cleaner than a human mouth?" asked Samuel Alcantara.
"I don't know."
"I've heard a toilet is cleaner than a sink," Samantha Nichols volunteered.
"I'll have to look that one up."
The good news, Fragola told the Highland Lakes Elementary children, was that they could be cleaned. He pulled up a Power Point with explicit instructions on washing their hands. Lather for 20 seconds, or about the amount of time it takes to sing the ABC's. Then rinse furiously.
Samuel, the boy curious about dogs' mouths, said, "Thanks for this life-saving speech."
Fragola had come to speak to the class at the behest of Diane Grace, the brand-new cafeteria manager at Highland Lakes. For many years Grace had run her family's restaurant out on Sand Key, but it had closed, and she had always had a soft spot for children.
But coming to Highland Lakes, she had been struck by how little the students knew about basic dining concepts. They ate so much sugar that they couldn't sit still in their seats. Or they stood at the tables, unfamiliar with a sit-down meal.
"After school they're running around to soccer, to baseball — everyone's on a time constraint, so the minute they get out of here, it's fast-food," said Grace, who runs both breakfast and lunch at Highland Lakes. "I have them for two meals out of the day, so I have a chance."
Grace passed out aprons and hairnets, then led the students out of the dining area and into the bowels of the kitchen, where they split into two groups and practiced washing their hands. Then they set about cleaning the tables they had sat at before.
"You all came in here with your dirty germs, so we need to sanitize," Grace said.
The children, now also wearing latex gloves, were to learn about portion control. "Portion control has gotten way out of control in recent years, as you know," Grace said.
The children measured a quarter-cup of broccoli before adding it to a carton with cherry tomatoes, raw carrot sticks and one packet of low-fat ranch dressing, "because two packets will go to your hips."
After creating 100 cartons, re-cleaning the tables and sweeping the floors, the children removed their gloves. Grace came around with a large metal mixing bowl full of Starburst fruit chews covered in a white powder. "Take one," she said.
"But they're not perfectly clean," said Samantha.
"They're not ever going to be perfectly clean," Grace said, "and that's part of it, too."
"Is it baby powder?" asked Samuel.
"No, it is not."
While they chewed the candies, Grace gave a sermon on portion sizes. They should not eat more than two handfuls of cereal. A tennis ball is like 2 ounces of pretzels. A vegetable serving is the size of a computer mouse. "So when you are thinking about portions on your plate, think about a computer mouse."
Just before it was time for the children to return to class, Grace had them crowd into the back room, always kept around 70 degrees, where the dry food is stored. Fragola was there. "We have a surprise for you," he said. "Remember the powder on the candy?" Then he turned off the light.
The powder, it turns out, was a tracer that attaches itself to germs and glows under a special light Fragola held. The kids' hands and faces all glowed. Some had germs on their ears or lips, or their clothes. "Look at Kenny's apron!" someone shouted. It was also on his eyebrows.
"Again, boys and girls," Grace said. "Do you see the importance of washing your hands?" They nodded that they did.
Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).