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Safe Sampling in School Gardens

Contributed by: Anne Sawyer, University of Minnesota Extension

Eating fresh fruits and vegetables from the school garden can be a life-changing experience for students. School gardens provide opportunities to learn about nutrition and healthy lifestyles, local food systems, and environmental stewardship. We can also use school gardens to teach basic food safety practices and help students establish a lifetime of healthy habits.

Youth + gardens = winning!

Photo: U of M Extension
However, raw produce can contain harmful microbes such as Salmonella or certain types of E. coli that can make people very sick. Those who are young, old, pregnant and/or have weakened immune systems are at increased risk of severe illness or even death from foodborne illness. We must do our best to reduce the risk of contamination in fresh produce, particularly when growing food for other people.

Here, we'll talk about some simple guidelines for harvesting and preparing fresh produce for sampling in a school or other educational garden. These steps, when used in conjunction with other Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) for growing produce, can help reduce risk of foodborne illness from fresh fruits and vegetables.

But first... handwashing!

Handwashing is one of the most important steps you can take to reduce the risk of making people sick from fresh produce. I like to remind people that the school garden is really an extension of the kitchen - except that it's outside. When touching other peoples' food, whether indoors or out, it's important that everybody washes hands first.
BYO handwashing: Jug of drinkable water, soap, 
paper towels, bucket for dirty hand water, and 
trash bin. Photo: Anne Sawyer

Also remind harvesters to always wash hands after using the bathroom or eating; after coughing or sneezing; or anytime they become a potential source of contamination (for example, if you accidentally grab a tomato with bird poop on it). It's a good idea to review correct handwashing procedure with harvesters:
  • Wet hands;
  • Wash with soap for 15-20 seconds - don't forget wrists, nail beds, and under fingernails;
  • Rinse thoroughly;
  • Dry with paper towel.
If your garden does not have access to handwashing facilities, you can bring your own! A large, plastic container with a continuous flow valve (such as those used for camping) is perfect for outdoor handwashing. Fill it with drinkable water and set it on a table or pickup truck bed. Don't forget the soap and be sure to provide plenty of single-use paper towels with a container or bag for disposal. Set up a bucket to catch the used wash water - you don't want people walking through a mud puddle of dirty hand water. Be sure to dump used wash water away from the garden; use it to water pollinator plants, trees, or grass.

Finally, know that hand sanitizer is NOT an acceptable substitute for handwashing in the garden. Hand sanitizer is only effective on hands that are already very clean. If hands are dirty (as they often are in the garden!), the sanitizer binds to the dirt and oils, rendering it ineffective for destroying germs.

Step by step: Group harvest and tasting

1. Everyone wash hands.

2. Ensure that harvest containers and tools (such as scissors) are clean. Harvest containers should be cleanable and sanitizable (such as foodservice totes or plastic storage containers). You may be able to ask Nutrition Services to put harvest equipment in the dishwasher for you.

3. Look for any evidence of animal intrusion prior to picking - you can even send a student as a "scout". Remind students not to pick anything with animal feces (poop) or bite marks, and to avoid plants that are trampled or show other evidence of animals. Animals can transmit germs in their feces, in their saliva, or on their bodies.

4. After picking, be sure to wash produce before eating. Use only drinking-quality water for washing produce. If you do not have access to running water, use clean buckets or totes filled with potable water to wash produce. Use at least two buckets, with the first to remove dirt and the other for clean rinse. Using three buckets is even better, with two clean rinse steps. Be sure sinks, buckets, and/or totes are cleaned and sanitized prior to use, and change water as necessary to maintain cleanliness.

Multi-bucket dunk setup for washing produce. 
Change water as often as needed to maintain cleanliness.
5. Put washed produce into clean container for serving.

6. Designate an eating area outside of the garden. You don't want half-eaten cherry tomatoes strewn around the garden, nor do you want a student to spit out something they don't like right into the fresh, unpicked lettuces!

7. Wash hands again before eating, and enjoy your fresh produce!

Some other ideas to try

If you're short on time or have other limitations, here are some additional options to consider for safe sampling:
  • Pick and wash produce ahead of time. Save the sampling activity for after students do other things in the garden.
  • Have students pick into single-use paper cups and wash their own before eating it. This works well with small amounts of produce, such as cherry tomatoes.
  • Have students pick produce and take it home with them. No need to wash in the garden this way. Be sure to remind them to wash it before they eat it - whether or not they do is out of your control, but at least you've done your best.
  • Remember that in school gardens, you are teaching healthy habits for life. Washing hands and washing produce before eating are essential life lessons! The bottom line is that in school gardens, we need to be extra careful about not making anybody sick. Following these steps for safe sampling can help reduce risks of spreading foodborne illness - and keep students in the garden!
Additional information

For more information about food safety and Good Agricultural Practices, including how to build a field handwashing station and instructions for cleaning and sanitizing harvest tools and equipment, visit Extension’s On-Farm GAPs Education Program:

Looking for supplies related to garden food safety? This document is a great place to start. More resources are available on this (still under development) garden food safety site that I’m working on.

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