How Safe is the Food Served in our Schools?

We all want our children and grandchildren to be safe when they attend school.

But news headlines cause concern: “Workers blamed for food poisoning at Waipahu Elementary School”, “Questions Remain over Hollister High School Illness Outbreak”, “Food Poisoning Outbreak at Stanford — Norovirus Suspected”, ”Investigation Continues into what Sidelined 58 Teachers in Catered Luncheon.

For school administrators, teachers, parents and grandparents the headlines raise doubt.

Source: USDA

What is the frequency of these outbreaks?

In a 2016 CDC report there were nine outbreaks in 2014.

In the most recent CDC report August 2017 there were 16 food borne illness school outbreaks with 622 illnesses. While the reports are based on data that is two years old this is an increase from the previous year’s report.

What are deeper root causes?

In the 2016 report, “56% of outbreaks involved multiple reported food safety errors…. Contamination contributing factors (49.2%) accounted for the greatest proportion of reported food safety errors….” In the 2017 report, ‘poor food handling, improper food storage and holding temperatures and food contaminated by a food handler are usually the causes.’

  • The food handler improperly preparing the food is a cause. Heating, washing and/or displaying could further contaminate the food either from a sick worker or poor technique. This was likely the cause in the Stanford norovirus outbreak.
  • Most schools have foods prepared and delivered. If not held at the appropriate temperature, it can be a cause for food borne illness. This was the cause in the catered teacher luncheon that infected 58 people.

What is the school’s responsibilities as it relates to food safety?

The Child Nutrition and WIC reauthorization Act of 2004 outlines some very specific requirements, most important of which is that each school should implement a food safety program for meal preparation and service that complies with a hazard analysis and critical control point system established by the Secretary of the USDA.

What can be done to reduce food borne illness risk in a school system?

Awareness, education and creating a food safe culture in ALL food handlers is key.

In some schools, parent volunteers are involved in cafeteria activities.  A school administrator should confirm the level of food safety education and/or compliance with food safety rules in all staff and well-meaning volunteers.

Dining in collaboration with the Platte River Academy of Highlands Ranch, Colorado piloted a project designed to do just that. The question was asked, was Platte River Academy as safe for children as It could be? Details of that trial were published.

Every one of the volunteers, as did the Board and PTO, appreciated the emphasis on food safety at the school. There were volunteers who mentioned that this new knowledge had led to a change with some of their food preparation steps at home.

There are excellent free or inexpensive opportunities for school districts to improve food safety. Cornell University has prepared Middle and High School Teacher Food Safety Programs. The NFSMI has developed School Nutrition Expert Food Safety Training. The USDA Food Safety Network has training for food service professionals. The FNS Office of Food Safety web site provides food safety education and training resources for school food service professionals and child nutrition program operators.

Finally, has developed a Food Server/Handler course designed specifically for volunteers and the occasional food handler. This course is online and available anytime, in English, Spanish and Chinese with a corresponding quiz that ensures a level of comprehension. The course is available free through sponsor funding. Dining Safety Alliance, Our Not-For-Profit Partner

We all share a passion for keeping our school children safe. But that passion needs action. You can help by visiting  Dining Safety Alliance, Our Not-For-Profit Partner


Author: Dr. Harlan Stueven, MD

Harlan Stueven M.D. is a Board-Certified Emergency physician with sub-specialization in Environmental Toxicology and Board Certification in Medical Toxicology. Starting his career in the USAF, he served as a Flight Surgeon and Environmental Health Consultant Physician where one of his duties was monitoring food safety. In his nearly 40-year practice, he treated a range of medical, surgical and poisoning emergencies. He has been a Medical Director and/or Chairman of several hospital-based Emergency Medicine Departments, served as the President of Emergency and Environmental Medicine consulting group, a physician group Chief Financial Officer and sat on many national, state and local committees. Dr. Stueven founded Dining Grades and the Dining Safety Alliance to improve food safety by increasing awareness of food borne illness and the formation of partnerships within the food industry. He is a consultant to the Wisconsin Retail Food Establishment Grading Work Group; a Co-investigator in a CDC funded “Evaluation of Health Department Restaurant Inspection Programs” project. He has presented at several National, State and Regional conferences on restaurant grading and food safety. He is an accomplished leader, medical researcher, a champion of process improvement, author, and national and international speaker.

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