Safety First

Author: Sarah Pounders

archbishop3-webGrow it, know it, try it … love it! Educators and parents across the country are using this philosophy to get young gardeners hooked on fruits and vegetables. Both anecdotal and research-based evidence lend support to the theory that experiencing food from seed to table builds excitement for fruits and vegetables and motivates kids to change their eating behaviors. As children sow, grow, harvest, cook, and then eat, they learn to appreciate healthy foods and develop skills to obtain it.

Using the garden as a nutrition education tool can have challenges. Recent publicity about harmful pathogens such as E.coli and salmonella in horticultural crops has some administrators concerned about the safety of consuming food from a school garden. Microbes do exist in the outdoor environment, but by implementing good agricultural practices for growing, harvesting, and preparing foods, your youth garden’s produce will be as safe as the fruits and vegetables purchased by your cafeteria from commercial operations.

Food-borne illnesses can be serious, especially for young children, and food safety should always be at the forefront of nutrition education programs that include a cooking and eating component. Most pathogens are killed by heat during the cooking process, but since fresh produce is often consumed raw, it’s important to eliminate possible sources of contamination during production and preparation as well. There are also steps you can take to increase food safety outdoors. Below are several practices you can implement in your youth gardening program to reassure concerned administrators or parents.

These resources offer additional food-safety information:

• Food Safety Tips for Your Edible Home Garden from the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at the University of California, Davis

• Safe-Handling of Fruits and Vegetables from the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at the University of California, Davis

• Rhode Island Food Safety Education Garden to Table Outreach Program

• SafeFood from the Iowa State University Extension’s Food Safety Project

In the Garden
Know your neighbors. Before planting a garden, investigate the land surrounding your site. Runoff from rain or irrigation can deliver pathogens from agricultural or municipal waste. Make sure there are no septic systems near by. Avoid situating a garden next to an agricultural field fertilized with fresh manure.

Check your water. Municipal water is treated and should be safe, but unregulated sources such as wells, ponds, or streams may contain contaminants. If your water source is untreated, have your water tested and use a drip irrigation system to avoid spraying water directly on maturing vegetables.

Keep animals out. Fecal matter from animals can be a source of harmful pathogens. It’s unrealistic to expect to keep all animals out of the garden — your tasty harvest will attract a diversity of wildlife! However, you can take measures to deter some uninvited visitors. For example, avoid adding habitat components that offer shelter (clumping grasses, shrubs, or trees) or water elements (bird baths, fountains) to vegetable gardens. Use fences and netting to block entry. Remove overripe fruits and vegetables.

Use fully composted manure. Animal manure is a common organic fertilizer. If properly made, the high temperatures incurred during the composting process will kill any harmful pathogens. Composted manure from cows, horses, or chickens is best; never use composted fecal matter from pigs, dogs, or cats. Make sure you obtain composted manure from a trusted source. If you cannot confirm that the compost was made properly, use commercial fertilizers or cover crops.

At Harvest
Use clean tools. Make sure all equipment used to harvest and transport produce, including baskets or other containers, is sanitized.

Clean your hands. Ask gardeners to wash their hands before harvesting.

In the Kitchen or Classroom
When preparing food, be smart. Cleanliness is paramount. There are a number of simple steps you can take to ensure food safety for everyone involved:

Wash hands. This is rule #1! Teach kids how to wash their hands properly and make sure they do so before handling food. Wash hands with soap and warm water for as long as it takes to sing the alphabet song. Dry hands with a clean towel.

If you need to sneeze…. Instruct children to turn aside and cover their nose if they need to sneeze or cough. Then wash hands again. If they need to blow their nose, wash hands afterwards.

Clean your equipment. Before you start to prepare any food, clean all work surfaces (including the sink) with hot soapy water. You can clean vegetable scrub brushes in the dishwasher or by rinsing them in a dilute bleach solution. Also be sure your utensils and dishes are clean. Always use one cutting board for vegetables and fruits and a different one for raw meats and fish.

Avoid damaged produce. Pre-existing cuts in fruits and vegetables can provide an entry for pathogens.

Clean your produce. Wash all fruits and vegetables under running water. Scrub them with your cleaned hands or vegetable scrub brush and dry with paper towels. Additional tips:

  • Wash produce right before eating it, rather than when you store it.
  • Wash whole fruits and vegetables with rinds or hulls (e.g., watermelons, strawberries, winter squash) before slicing them or removing the hulls to avoid contaminating the edible portion as your knife slices through the outer layer.
  • Remove the outer leaves of vegetables such as lettuce, cabbage, or cauliflower before washing them.
  • Refrigerate any cut-up leftovers for later consumption.

Defending your youth garden
If you do encounter administrators or parents concerned with food safety, it’s important to explore their concerns fully. Emphasize the program’s benefits to the children and invite the concerned individuals or groups to work with you to resolve the safety issues. For example, you might partner with local health officials to establish written operating procedures for planting, maintenance, harvesting, and preparation that support food safety.

Published in the May, 2009 issue of KidsGarden Newsletter

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