Keeping food safe at school and community gardens

My grandparents introduced me to vegetable gardening when I was a kid. I used to leave the city for a couple of weeks each summer and visit them in Campbellford, Ontario (that’s in Canada) and they’d put me to work in their garden. I’d pull weeds, pick up fallen tomatoes (for the compost) and help pick green beans. It’s all a bit hazy, but looking back they didn’t let me handle anything that was ready to eat. Probably because I was dirty.Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 11.41.11 AM

A few years ago my group was asked by the great folks at the NC Department of Public Instruction about the safety of produce in school gardens. As concerns over healthy food choices grew, more schools were asking about growing their own produce and using gardens as a teaching tool as well as a source of food. The food safety team correctly worried about risks.

I couldn’t find much in the literature on the about pathogens or even production practices at gardens so I figured a good place to start was to get into the field and figure out what was going on. Ashley Chaifetz, barfblog contributor and PhD student at UNC Chapel Hill worked for a summer to figure out the situation and came up with a short document to get garden organizers started (see for all the materials). And then she evaluated it, the results of the project were published yesterday in Food Protection Trends.

Here’s a press release from NC State News Services’ and my main man, Matt Shipman.

School and community gardens have become increasingly popular in recent years, but the people managing and working in these gardens are often unfamiliar with food safety practices that reduce the risk of foodborne illness. Now researchers have developed guidelines that address how to limit risk in these gardens – and a pilot study shows that the guidelines make a difference.

“People involved with these gardens are passionate about healthy eating, food security and helping people connect to where their food comes from,” says Ashley Chaifetz, lead author of a paper describing the work and its effect on school and community gardening practices. “But they often don’t have formal training in how to limit exposure to foodborne pathogens. We developed tools to help educate these gardeners, and our research shows that the tools are effective.” Chaifetz is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but worked in the lab of NC State associate professor and food safety specialist Ben Chapman at the time of the study.

The project, led by Chapman, was borne out of discussions with public school and park officials who asked for food safety guidelines for school and community gardens. The research team then developed a document that lists food safety risks, gives specific instructions on how to limit those risks, and explains how the risk mitigation efforts work.

For example, gardening involves working with your hands, creating the possibility of transferring pathogens to fresh produce. To limit that risk, people should wash their hands before working in the garden – not just after digging in the dirt. So, gardeners should have access to handwashing facilities (and should use them), in order to wash off any pathogens.

The guidelines also offer garden managers advice on how to share the recommendations with volunteers who work in the garden.

Once the guidelines were complete, the researchers wanted to know how and whether the guidance would influence behavior. To find out, they launched a project with 10 community gardens and 10 school gardens.

The researchers conducted on-site, observation-based assessments of food safety practices at all 20 gardens. They then gave the guidelines and related supplies – such as hand soap – to the garden managers.

Two months later, the researchers went back to the gardens to conduct a follow-up assessment.

Sixteen of the 20 gardens improved their overall scores in terms of their use of best practices.

In particular, the researchers found significant improvement in three areas: handwashing; addressing the safety of the site’s water supply; and assessing pre-existing hazards at the site, such as potential soil contamination.

“There’s still room for additional improvement in their food safety practices, but it’s important to note that we saw real advances in risk reduction simply by providing the guidelines,” Chapman says. “We’re exploring additional, follow-up measures, such as webinars and YouTube videos, to see if they lead to additional improvements.”

The guidance, “A Handbook for Beginning and Veteran Garden Organizers: How to Reduce Food Safety Risks,” is freely available online.

The paper, “Implementation of Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) in School and Community Gardens,” was published online April 30 in the journal Food Protection Trends. Lead author of the paper is Ashley Chaifetz, currently a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but who worked in Chapman’s lab at the time of the study. Co-authors include Elizabeth Driscoll and Chris Gunter of NC State, and Kristina Alnajjar and Alice Ammerman of UNC-Chapel Hill. The work was supported by the North Carolina Department of Instruction, North Carolina Recreation and Parks Association, and the Carolina Center for Public Service at the University of North Carolina.

Here’s the abstract

Implementation of Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) in School and Community Gardens

Authors: Ashley Chaifetz, Kristina Alnajjar, and Alice Ammerman, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Elizabeth Driscoll, Christopher C. Gunter, and Benjamin Chapman, North Carolina State University

Published: online April 30, Food Protection Trends

Interest in school and community gardens has increased over the past decade as a method to connect students and communities with food production. Although data on gardens as a source for foodborne illness is scarce, growing practices and settings are similar to those in small-scale commercial production. The objectives of this study were to (1) create a set of evidence-based best practices for gardens based on established food safety guidance for fresh produce, (2) create an intervention for delivery, and (3) evaluate the effectiveness of the practices. The guidelines were designed to impact garden organizer and volunteer behavior as well as organizational infrastructure regarding site selection, soil testing, handwashing, water, composting, garden design and fencing, sanitation, and volunteer management. School and community gardens (n = 20, 10 of each) were visited twice, using a pre-post design, and a risk-based observation instrument was administered. Sixteen gardens (80%) improved their overall scores. While the findings demonstrated that handwashing behavior could be altered significantly (P < 0.01) through the provision of the designed intervention, they also suggest a suitable means to take steps toward a safer garden.

Do Master Gardeners know food safety?

This is why we go to Florida in summer. The heat and humidity – especially this year – is ridiculous in Kansas and the closest beach may as well be Florida.

Amy, Sorenne and I wandered the grounds earlier this evening to view the overgrowth, eat a few fresh blackberries, let the dogs tear around the yard and for me to once again observe how much I suck at gardening. I’m better at taking care of the seven-month-old.

Maybe I need to call one of them there U.S. Department of Agriculture Master Gardeners, a cadre of volunteers who provide free gardening tips and have a wealth of science-based research to answer questions

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, said the other day,

“Growing fruits and vegetables in your own garden not only promotes a healthier lifestyle, but helps communities develop a safe, nutritious and sustainable source of food."

Safety is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot, like sustainable. I didn’t see anything about microbial food safety in this release, nor have I seen any evidence that local is safer, more nutritious or more sustainable. It’s a fun hobby. But as Vilsack should know, farming isn’t a hobby, it’s a skill. Society needs professional farmers. And parents.

Microbiologically safe produce – local or otherwise

The Obama’s – meaning Michelle – have started a gardening craze. Robert Kenner, the director of Food Inc., told Vanity Fair the solution to so-called industrial food issues was “to go to a farmers’ market whenever possible … it kind of feels like a religious experience.” And on rolls the bandwagon.

Massive rainfalls and 100F days has lead to some ideal growing conditions here in Manhattan (Kansas) but also presents some challenges in the form of floodwater (I’m convinced there’s just no drainage around here).

The microbiological safety of water sources is critical when growing fresh produce that is not going to be cooked. Did that floodwater come downstream from any sort of livestock operation (or human outhouse)? Did the water provide a vehicle for bird or rodent or lizard poop and pathogens to contaminate produce, inside and out? Will those pathogens now flourish in heat?

Those issues and more are discussed in the latest video from the SafeFoodCafe, the digital video subsidiary. The new video guy, Evan, did his best to make me look cool with what he had. He needs better source material.

Microbiologically safe food – regardless of farm size

Daughter Courtlynn spent her spring break with daughter Sorenne in Manhattan (Kansas).

Which is the only lede I got into foodborne illness, conspiracies and shameless exploitation of children.

The conclusion is this: Michelle Obama should use the White House garden to endorse microbiologically safe food, from around the corner or around the globe.

Phillip Brasher wrote in The Des Moines Register yesterday,

“In recent years, the federal government and the food industry have taken some significant steps to improve the safety of fresh produce. Those measures include stringent inspection standards for farms that supply schools and supermarket chains. The standards sometime restrict the use of compost and manure to fertilize crops and restrict how close cattle can be to fields.”

Stringent standards is not the descriptor to be used in the wake of the Peanut Corporation of America-AIB auditing fiasco. Worse, associations representing small-scale farmers have taken to the Intertubes to whine and conspiratorize about the end of family farming; that somehow standards for producing safe produce shouldn’t apply to small farms, or my garden.

The group that keeps getting cited for its threatening analysis of proposed food safety legislation is the ponderous Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which is run by the folks pushing raw milk. And some of those folks have, uh, interpretations of food safety that are not only wrong but dangerous to public health. Epidemiology does work, but not everyone likes the results.

Back to my kids. Or Mason Jones, the five-year-old who died in the 2005 E. coli O157 outbreak in Wales. Or Barack’s kids, since he cited them in a food safety chat. The food safety goal, for me, is to have fewer people barfing and dying. There is some microbiology and food science available to help achieve that goal. There is a lot of speculation, fairytales and unknowns about the providence of nature and immunology which can get in the way of that goal.

Michelle Obama, you are embracing local and fresh and natural foods and whatever that means. As I asked March 11, 2009, use the White House bully garden to embrace microbiologically safe food.

Obama’s special garden

Michelle Obama wants to educate children about healthful, locally grown fruit and vegetables.

“My hope is that through children, they will begin to educate their families and that will, in turn, begin to educate our communities.”

That is so retarded.

Oh, I thought that was OK after Barack told Jay Leno last night that his 129 in bowling was Special Olympics-like.

I compost. I garden. I know that berries (left) don’t magically come in the first year.

“Bill Yosses, the pastry chef, is looking forward to berry season.”

Growing food requires skill; farmers are professionals, not hobbyists. There is room for both. And I’d like to see some genetically-engineered Bt sweet corn grown in that garden. It’s more sustainable.

Below, our polar scarebear protects seedlings in the Kansas sunshine.


A nation fed on local food?

The political power of the U.S. president just sets the stage for the presidential family to influence American culture.

I think one of the most interesting galleries at the Eisenhower Museum–dedicated to our 34th president who hailed from Abilene, Kansas (about an hour from where I write)–is the gallery filled with outfits worn by his wife Mamie. Plaques near the outfits describe the impact the former First Lady had on women’s fashion during her husband’s presidency–like many First Ladies before and after her.

Purpose-minded people everywhere hope that their cause will be picked up by a member of the presidential family and instantly regarded as fashionable.

This, of course, includes proponents of local food.

As reported by the New York Times,

“The nonprofit group Kitchen Gardeners International wants to inspire people to grow their own food in home gardens. More recently, its “Eat the View!” campaign has targeted the ultimate home garden — the White House lawn.”

According to the group’s website,

Kitchen Gardeners “are self-reliant seekers of "the Good Life" who have understood the central role that home-grown and home-cooked food plays in one’s well-being.”

Across the pond, the Japan Times reports that, “public trust in food, packaging and labeling [is] crumbling across the nation,” and it’s leading consumers to “tak[e] a healthy interest in vegetables and other locally made produce.”

The article asserts,

“The vegetables and fruits are not necessarily cheap compared with supermarket prices, but people are apparently buying them because they feel safer eating products made by farmers who aren’t afraid to be identified.”

It can’t hurt to know who supplies your food. However, without microbiological evidence of the safety of products and processes, there’s really no guarantee that food produced nearby—or even in your own yard—will be safer to eat than food that’s been in transit for a while.

Sick people just get the comfort of knowing who it was that let the poop get on their food.


Safe food gardening

Whether purchasing from a local gardener, or starting your own garden, keep a few food safety questions in mind:

where is the garden located;

what type of fertilizer is used;

what is the water source;

is the garden and surrounding area properly maintained; and,

is the produce harvested safely?

Local gardeners and produce customers should understand that whether
it is a 1,000-acre commercial operation, or a small 10’ x 10’ plot of
land in one’s backyard, the principles of safe gardening remain the
same. The grower must prevent the produce from being contaminated.
Remember: food safe from farm to fork – even if it’s a small farm.

For more information about safe gardening visit

Home gardeners ‘disconnected’ from sources of foodborne illness

I love our garden. It’s a decent size, with lots of berries, beans, tomatoes and greens.

With spring just around the corner, I’ve started some seeds (right, interspersed amongst the French literature books that Amy is fond of) and started working the soil.

It’s also time for a new crop of stories about how local food is safer, better and just all around morally superior. Like the Arizona Republic last week, which stated,

"An increasing number of consumers hit hard by escalating food costs are, planting backyard gardens to save grocery dollars while protecting the environment against pollutants and themselves against tainted food."

Architects Miro Chun and Bryan White of Phoenix were cited as saying the garden provides a plentiful supply of organic produce, fits in well with their commitment to eat as locally as possible and gives them peace of mind when food-safety scares erupt, with Chun quoted as saying, "We were glad we could pick spinach out of our garden when spinach was making people ill."

Maybe. Depends on what was in the soil. From the backyard to a farmer’s field, the basics are the same, especially with fresh produce that is not going to be cooked: know the source of water, know what is being added to the soil, and wash your damn hands.

Researchers from the northeast U.S. reported in the Feb. 2008 Food Protection Trends that based on interviews with 94 home gardeners of fruits and vegetables that,

"Home gardeners, although they acknowledged that they could get sick from consuming produce, did not seem to be aware that contamination could come from a variety of sources such as soil, compost, fresh manure and/or the water supply. Results indicated that there was a ‘disconnect,’ or lack of understanding, of the sources and mechanisms of pathogenic bacterial contamination as related to its homegrown produce."

This is common. Think like a microorganism and most problems can be predicted and prevented. Be the bug.

It’s all about the poop

In my food safety travels, I’ve heard — and seen — a lot of things. And I’ve repeatedly heard that many of those urban vegetable gardens, especially those producing for certain cultural sub-groups, make use of human feces as a form of fertilizer.

A story in today’s Goleta Valley News in California tries to pry into the world of gonzo gardening.  Fairview Gardens is a 12.5 acre urban organic farm at 598 N. Fairview Ave. Unhappy neighbors turned out to an Aug. 13, 2007 planning commission meeting to air their concerns about the farm’s operations and practices.

Steve Chase, Goleta’s director of planning and environmental services, said,

"There were two main issues we wanted to address. Are they using the orchard as a toilet? And are they meeting sanitation standards with regards to the city’s code?"

Charles Hamilton, a retired physician who has been living on Connor Way, a cul de sac that abuts the west side of the farm, since 1964, was quoted as saying,

"I do not want a (human) compost toilet 50 feet from my back yard" adding that he has doubts that the composting toilet will be monitored sufficiently to allow for the proper decomposition of human feces, and the presence of human manure would contribute to the smell, horseflies and potential for illness as a result of the bacteria in the raw sewage."

Linda Halley, who has been with the farm for a year and a half, said human waste is from trespassers, not farm workers  and that,

"We have sold fresh produce grown on this farm nearly daily for well over 20 years, to members of our own community. Zero incidents of food poisoning have occurred. I do not take the accusations of using human manure and being a possible source of E. coli contamination lightly in this day and age of many serious food poisoning incidents."