Supporting Schools in Creating Plans to Ensure and Sustain Food Safety

As schools across the country celebrate the new academic year, set goals for success, and take steps to nurture safe, healthy, and supportive teaching and learning environments, it is important to also raise awareness about food safety.

Each year, millions of Americans get foodborne illness, resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Food safety is something that impacts all communities—rural, urban, suburban, and insular—and on June 7, 2019, partners around the globe illuminated the importance of seeing “food safety as everyone’s business” during the first-ever World Food Safety Day. September is also Food Safety Education Month!

In this blog post, the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) Office of Safe and Supportive Schools (OSSS) and its Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) Technical Assistance (TA) Center chats with Frank Brogan, ED’s Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education and Dr. Mindy Brashears, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety about this important topic.

Tell us a little bit about what USDA does to ensure food safety:

Dr. Brashears: As a public health agency, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is tasked with ensuring that regulated products are safe, wholesome, and accurately labeled. Preventing foodborne illness is a priority at the USDA.

Why is this a topic that school leaders should prioritize?

Mr. Brogan: Schools often serve as more than learning environments. They are one of the most valued and respected entities within a community—families and caregivers trust them to care for their children throughout the day and year, and the community relies on schools following disasters for critical mass care services, including access to safe food. For students, schools are often like a second home; and for those who don’t have a constant source of food, schools may be the only reliable source of nutritious meals, year-round. Last year alone, school cafeterias served close to 5 billion lunches; nearly 25 percent of which were served free or at a reduced price.

Dr. Brashears: USDA’s vision is simple: Everyone’s food is safe. From processing to distribution, all the way to preparation and consumption, USDA employees work around the clock to ensure food safety across the nation. However, food safety is a group effort and we all have a stake in making sure that the American food supply remains the safest food supply in the world. Our students are relying on us to serve them safe food. Children are amongst those most vulnerable to foodborne illness. It’s important that food handlers both inside and outside the school take the necessary steps to prevent foodborne illness.

What puts schools at risk for serving contaminated food?

Mr. Brogan: There are a variety of emergency incidents that can threaten food safety and security. This includes biological hazards, natural hazards, technological hazards, and adversarial- and human-caused threats. Most incidents of food contamination in schools result from improper food handling at any stage, including operational negligence, poor employee training, and poor process control.

Dr. Brashears: Prevention plays a huge role in maintaining food safety and decreasing risks. Ultimately knowledge equals prevention. Yes, food producers play a large role in food safety but others along the chain do, too! From parents, to teachers, to workers directly handling food in school cafeterias, food safety is everyone’s business. Following the four steps to food safety will tremendously decrease the risk of serving contaminated food. Make sure you’re playing your part by practicing the four steps whether at home or at school.

Clean – wash hands, utensils, and surfaces often.

Separate – don’t cross contaminate.

Cook – cook to the right temperature as measured by a food thermometer.

Chill – refrigerate and freeze food promptly.

How can schools and school districts work to prevent food contamination?

Mr. Brogan: ED’s OSSS and its REMS TA Center recommend that schools develop a Food Contamination Annex to be included in overall school and school district emergency operations plans. (View an online course developed by the REMS TA Center on this topic.) This annex should outline considerations specific to the before, during, and after phases of a food contamination incident, as detailed below.

  • Before a Contamination Incident
    • Develop policies and procedures to manage internal and external threats
    • Implement best practices for using central kitchens
    • Determine best practices for managing a food recall
    • Train employees on best practices for preventing food contamination
    • Promote food safety practices, including healthy hygiene to students, staff and families in conjunction with the seasons, holidays and major dates within the school year such as Back To School
  • During an Incident
    • Enact procedures for sick students and staff;
    • Report incident to local health department (include estimates of affected students, faculty, and staff)
    • Communicate with parents and the school community (see Communication Annex)
    • Suspend operations until product and/or agent has been identified
    • Destroy and dispose of contaminated products according to instructions (consider that some of the contaminated products should be held for analysis)
    • Clean and sanitize facilities and equipment
  • After an Incident
    • Continue to carry out procedures for handling sick students and staff;
    • Dispose of solid waste
    • Reassure students and family members that food is safe to consume and rebuild trust in school community
    • Review food protocols with partners and food services team
    • Continue to promote food safety and related hygiene practices

Development of an annex requires collaboration with partners such as the local Health Department as well as among various school stakeholders, including Nutrition Services staff, administrators, custodial staff, cafeteria adult monitors and staff, students, as well as parents and students.

Learn more about development of a Food Contamination Annex as a part of school emergency preparedness planning via the REMS TA Center’s specialized training package or online course.


Additional school support on food safety from the USDA and ED:

Parents, teachers, those directly handling food in school cafeterias can find additional information on food safety at FoodSafety.gov. If you have questions about food safety, you can talk to USDA experts on the Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854). Hours of operation are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, Eastern Time. You can also email or chat via Ask Karen and Pregúntele a Karen.

Education agencies and their community partners can contact the REMS TA Center for TA support and information about training on this topic via email at info@remstacenter.org and phone at -855-781-REMS [7367].