Food pantry policy and food safety

Dr. Ashley Chaifetz. a research assistant at N.C. State University writes via UVM’s Food Feed,

Every year, an estimated 48 million Americans contract a foodborne illness. Those illnesses have come from pretty much every place where there’s food: grocery stores, hospitals, church dinners, county fairs, schools, restaurants, prisons, private homes, and even emergency food providers. I wish I could say that foodborne illness prevention was simple, that everyone knew how to reduce risk, that access to institution-specific food safety materials is readily-available, or that our food is always safe and we didn’t need to worry. Unfortunately, that’s not the case; although some food distributors are more closely regulated than others, it’s incredibly difficult to trace an illness to its source.Food Pantry 1

Foods distributed through shelters, food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens, backpack programs, and other institution-specific programs are referred to as emergency food. In North Carolina, there are seven food banks and at least 2,500 emergency food providers associated with Feeding America (the country’s largest hunger-relief charity), plus hundreds more independent organizations.

To examine and analyze the standard operating procedures and supply chain of the food pantry system, I conducted interviews at 105 food pantries in 12 counties across North Carolina. While committed to social welfare, the food pantries are self-governed, and the issues of hunger and nutrition can supersede other concerns for the vulnerable populations served. Increasingly, food pantries create rules and regulations in the absence of those created by any level of government. Each food pantry operates with its own set of rules, some of which are formalized and some that are informal.

While their mission is similar, food pantries are diverse. More than 80% of the pantries distribute fruits and vegetables, as well as frozen meat (pork, beef, and chicken), in addition to canned and packaged items. On average, the managers get food from 3.73 sources, including food banks, grocery stores, food distributors, school gardens, farms, hunting trips, federal commodity programs (TEFAP and SNAP), restaurants, individuals, and food drives. Some pantries distribute the same amount of food to each person, while other managers base the number of bags individuals receive on family size. Many food pantries now use a client-choice model, which means the food pantry is set up like a grocery store, allowing the clients to “shop.” Some pantries are open six days per week, while others are open only once per month. Their capacity and ability to store items varies, and few pantry managers receive food safety training of any kind.

As a result of this data analysis, I identified the gaps in their food safety prevention measures and, with Dr. Ben Chapman at NC State University and North Carolina Cooperative Extension, put together a series of online videos to better inform pantry mangers and volunteers of the best food handling and storage practices at food pantries. At that time, best practices for food pantries were nowhere to be found; these are publicly available to all, without a password or special program.

  • Given the importance of the topic, the first video is centered on general food safety information, details on foodborne illnesses, riskier foods, wild game, and past-date foods (which also encompass the entire fourth video).
  • Risk prevention is key, and there are low-cost ways to prevent contamination when storing and handling food. Based on the 2009 Food Code (as used in North Carolina), the second video concentrates on three focus areas: time-temperature abuse, cross-contamination, and hand-washing.
  • So that new and veteran volunteers have the same information on how the pantry is designed to operate (and be kept safe), the third video provides detail on writing standard operating procedures and how to get information on recalled foods (including links from the FDA). Though less related to food safety, there’s a fourth video on how long items can be consumed past the date on the package.
  • Six additional documents have been provided to assist in implementing new protocols, from checklists and templates for writing the standard operating procedures, to signage, including a flowchart on how to tell if canned foods are ok to eat.

Food pantry managers and volunteers might be confused about food handling—and what we do at home is not always the best practice. Regardless of income level, consumers should have access to food that is safe, requiring all supply chain actors to do their respective parts. Unlike other food systems institutions, food pantries are private (predominately faith-based) organizations that provide a public good; that designation does not mean they should be treated as outliers in terms of food safety and handling information.

Ashley Chaifetz will be a speaker at the UVM Food Systems Summit on June 16-17 at the UVM Davis Center.  For more information or to register, visit

‘Jesus didn’t have to go to an approved kitchen.’ Philly health board passes new rules on feeding the homeless

Although things are supossedly getting better, tough economic times since 2008 have led to an increase of folks relying on food banks and soup kitchens. Stories of concerned people distributing donated or leftover food have been common over the past couple of years as communities come together to support those hit hardest.

I can’t imagine how hard it is to be homeless or not have enough money to feed my family. Focusing on safe, nutritious food is moot if the money isn’t available to buy groceries. Or if there’s no home to take them too. Having a good heart and good intentions doesn’t automatically lead to safe meals.

According to the Philadelphia Board of Health has approved new food safety regulations related to groups that feed the homeless outdoors.

Groups will be required to obtain a permit from the city and to have at least one member receive free food-safety training from the Health Department. The regulations come as the city proceeds with a ban in city parks on feeding the homeless and others who want free meals.

Further coverage in Bloomberg Businessweek says these new rules are politically-based and food safety is being used to clean up parks.

Homeless advocates say it’s not the cost that’s bothering them, since many municipalities are offering food-training classes for free. Instead, they’re concerned the bureaucratic intrusions will cause some small operations, such as those that don’t have access to approved kitchens, to shut down.

[Philadelphia Mayor Michael] Nutter said another policy change that bans outdoor feeding at city parks will increase “the health, safety, dignity and support” for the homeless.

The city has banned feedings in city parks, except for family picnics and public events, and is considering rules to protect the homeless from foodborne illness. Brian Jenkins [who works for Chosen 300 Ministries Inc] says the requirements, such as preparing items in approved facilities and attending food-safety classes, are a ploy to rid tourist areas of people deemed an eyesore.

“Jesus didn’t have to go to an approved kitchen,” Jenkins said. “If I have to pay a fine, then I will. I’m still going to feed outside, the way I always have. I’ll just put up a sign that says ‘God’s Family Picnic.’”

Responsible community members and organizations who are passionate about feeding those less fortunate still need to know about food-related risks and do their best to address them – dealing with a foodborne illness could contribute to an individual’s hardship.

Fresh produce and food banks

‘Tis the season for giving, and increasingly, food banks are distributing fresh produce.

The New York Times reported earlier this month,

“… food banks are preparing ready-to-eat meals, opening their own farms and partnering with institutions as varied as local supermarkets and state prisons to help gather and process food. They are also handling much more fresh produce, which requires overhauling the way they store and distribute food.”

What the story doesn’t mention is the risks of foodborne illness associated with fresh produce and how best to manage those risks.

Years ago, I went to an industrial kitchen that produced meals for several Toronto food banks to review their food safety protocols. It was impressive, and whatever fresh produce they got went into soups and stews, for food safety and preservation reasons.

I’m all for increased consumption of fresh produce, through food banks and elsewhere. But acknowledge and manage the risks.