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School Garden Food Safety: Got questions? We can help!

Contributed by: Anne Sawyer, University of Minnesota Extension

Harvesting fresh herbs with clean hands and
clean, sanitized scissors. Photo: Anne Sawyer
Do you have questions about food safety in your school garden? If so, we are here to help!

Anne Sawyer and Annalisa Hultberg are University of Minnesota Extension Educators in On-Farm Food Safety. We help Minnesota produce farmers and gardeners reduce risks of contamination that can lead to foodborne illnesses, such as Salmonella or Norovirus, in fresh produce. Produce can be contaminated from animal or human feces (think unwashed/poorly washed hands, bird droppings, etc.), dirty water, or dirty tools and surfaces. If contaminated produce is eaten raw, it could make people very sick. Fortunately, there are several simple steps that you can take to minimize the risk of foodborne illness in your school garden!

Food safety is especially important in a school setting, where young people may be eating the produce. If you are growing produce for a food shelf, school cafeteria, or sending it home with families, it is essential that you take steps to ensure that the food is as safe as possible for anyone that eats it. The good thing is that basic food safety practices are also good for postharvest quality, so things you do to keep the harmful pathogens off your produce also result in high quality, long-lasting produce. Good food safety practices can protect your school garden, people who eat your produce, and our local food system.

As Extension Educators, we teach growers about Good Agricultural Practices, or GAPs. GAPs are science-based best practices that can help minimize the risk of making anyone sick from eating fresh produce grown in your garden. GAPs education includes topics such as:

  • Assessing food safety risks in your garden;
  • Personal hygiene, such as handwashing, not working while sick, and wearing clean clothes and shoes;
  • Water use and testing;
  • Soil amendment use, particularly manure or compost;
  • Cleaning and sanitizing harvest tools or equipment (e.g. scissors and harvest buckets) and food contact surfaces (e.g. sinks and tables);
  • Keeping animals out of the garden and looking for signs of animals prior to harvest;
  • Recordkeeping, including garden food safety plans and standard operating procedures.

We are in the process of creating materials that will best help you to learn about and implement food safety in your school gardens. As part of this process, we want to know what you’re already doing in your gardens related to food safety. At the 2019 Schoolyard Gardens Conference, held on March 1 at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, we asked participants a few questions about food safety in school gardens, and here’s what we learned:

School gardens are feeding students! 100% of respondents (n=29) said that students eat produce from their school garden. This is great! We don’t want food safety concerns to be a barrier to letting students eat the fresh produce that they grow. Our goal is to empower you to grow and serve safe, healthy produce! And yes, you can serve school garden produce in the cafeteria.

Food safety training in the garden. Only 24% of respondents (n=29) said they do some food safety training for students or staff participants in school gardens. A basic food safety training would include topics like handwashing, not harvesting if you’re sick, not harvesting anything with feces on it (bird droppings, for example), and doing a pre-harvest assessment to look for evidence of animals. We can help you figure out what a food safety training would look like for your garden.

Field handwashing stand. 
Photo: UMN GAPs Education Program
Access to handwashing. A majority of respondents (63%, n=27) said they have access to handwashing near their garden. Handwashing is one of the most important steps in preventing the spread of germs from one person to the next. Note that hand sanitizer is not an acceptable substitute for handwashing in the garden. You can, however, make your own handwashing setup. You’ll need a jug of clean water, soap, paper towels, a bucket to catch dirty water and a receptacle for used paper towels.

Pre-harvest poop patrol! Most respondents (59%, n=27) said that they look for signs of animals prior to harvest. This is great! Animals – or people – can find their way into our gardens and bring contamination with them in the form of saliva, feces, or urine. Looking for signs of animals and contamination is a great first step to reducing the spread of foodborne illness from fresh produce. You can use a flag to mark the location and don’t harvest in that area. Should you choose to remove the contamination after harvest, do so cautiously, using designated tools, and remember to wash hands afterwards!

Contamination can be hard to see! Blueberries with bird droppings. Photo: Anne Sawyer
Cleaning and sanitizing? Most participants (81%, n=26) said they did not routinely clean and sanitize garden tools and equipment. Cleaning and sanitizing is one of the less obvious – but no less important – food safety practices that you should do in the garden. If you think of the garden as a restaurant or a kitchen, you would envision that anything touching the food would be kept clean. Things to consider would be harvest bins, scissors or knives used to cut produce, tables used to set produce on, or sinks/surfaces used for washing produce. You can clean most anything using water with regular dish detergent and a scrub brush. Then, follow up with a clean rinse and spray of sanitizer, and allow to air dry. If you have access to a sanitizer that’s used on food contact surfaces in the cafeteria, that will do nicely for garden purposes. If you need to make your own sanitizer, use 1 Tbs. of regular, unscented household bleach (6% sodium hypochlorite) per gallon of water. This can go into a spray bottle to be used as a sanitizer.

Got questions? We want to help! 75% of respondents (n=20) said they had questions about or wanted help with food safety in their gardens. That’s what we’re here for! We want to help you, but we need your help in figuring out how best to do so. What are the things that would be most helpful for you? Food safety training checklists? A toolkit with food safety plan, procedure and recordkeeping templates? Train-the-trainer curricula? Videos? In-person workshops? We are working on all of the above, but if you have ideas, preferences, or are willing to provide feedback on materials as they are developed, please let us know!

You can contact us or visit the Extension GAPs Education Program web page to learn more about GAPs, food safety plans, or the Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule.

Anne Sawyer, PhD
Extension Educator, On-Farm Food Safety, 651-480-7704
Farmington Regional Office
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