Maintaining food safety is essential to every school meal program. Food coming from local farms and school gardens can be as safe, or even safer, than foods coming through conventional channels. Nevertheless, school gardening and local purchasing may present some new food safety questions and require new protocols. The questions below are meant to help you establish a plan to maintain the safety of all foods served in your school or district as your farm to school program expands. As you think through the prompts, you will be encouraged to explore health policies at the state and local levels that might affect your operations; think about how to ensure food safety in your school garden and kitchen; and determine how you can be certain that food coming from local producers of all kinds is raised and handled in a way that gives you confidence that it’s safe to serve.
What steps have you already taken to ensure that, as your farm to school program grows, you are managing food safety risks for all of the foods you serve to students? What sorts of food safety materials and trainings have you offered to food service staff, teachers, maintenance staff, or others? Have your students received any training or instruction regarding food safety?
What food safety laws exist at the state and local levels that might affect your farm to school program?
Do you anticipate any changes in food preparation and service resulting from your farm to school program that will require you to develop new policies or standard operating procedures?
Do you anticipate any changes in food preparation and service resulting from your farm to school program that will require you to purchase small or large equipment? Do you have enough refrigerated storage to accommodate an increased volume of fresh produce? Do you have the capacity to transport fresh produce?
Do food service staff members feel comfortable with their current level of knowledge regarding food safety? If not, what types of training or experience will increase their confidence in this area? Do you anticipate a need for training others regarding food safety?
What food safety measures will you take into account when designing and maintaining your garden? Will you be following Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Good Handling Practices (GHP)?
Are you locating your garden away from potential sources of contamination? What building materials will you use to construct the garden? Do you need to have the soil or water source tested? Are there existing rules about the use of chemicals on the school grounds? If not, will you create rules to ensure that students are not exposed to chemicals, including pesticides?
Will students be involved in harvesting produce in your school garden? Where will harvested foods be washed and/or prepared? Where will students eat the foods that are produced in your school garden(s) (e.g. on-site at the garden, in a classroom, or in the cafeteria)? What types of containers will be used for harvest? Will a potable water source be available for washing and preparing the garden produce?
Do you have any other concerns about food safety related to your school garden? If so, how do you plan to address them?
Do food service staff, teachers, and others who interact with the school garden feel comfortable with their current level of knowledge regarding food safety in the garden? If not, what types of training or experience will increase their confidence in this area?
How will you ensure that suppliers for the local food you source for your farm to school program are practicing food safety steps from the field to your door?
Are there any specifications related to food safety that you might consider including in solicitations for local foods? What specifications or protocol do your distributors (or your food service management company) use related to on-site food safety for producers?
Do food service staff members feel comfortable with their current level of knowledge regarding on-farm (or ranch, or boat) food safety during production and transport? If not, what types of training or experience will increase confidence in this area?
Does your district or state, or do any of the retailers or other entities you work with, require that producers hold liability insurance? If so, what type of liability insurance is required? If no liability insurance requirements exist, will you establish some? Are your requirements sufficient to cover your needs and realistic for potential suppliers?
In the event that food served through your school nutrition program is recalled, what is your system for tracing the produce one step back to your supplier and one step forward to when and to whom it was served? Are you able to trace all of the ingredients in your menu items back to your purchasing records? Do you keep products separated through storage and service? What are your other traceability concerns, and how will you address them?
USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service
Answers to common questions about food safety rules, working with local farmers, and handling fresh produce.
USDA and the National Food Service Management Institute
Includes videos, fact sheets, presentations, and talking points on produce safety topics for school foodservice professionals ranging from schools gardens, to food preparation and handling, to produce quality.
University of Minnesota
An array of resources that includes information about food safety and salad bars, canned products, and locally produced eggs. Be aware that some of the information presented is specific to Minnesota’s state laws.
Virginia Cooperative Extension
A host of resources covering topics ranging from food storage guidelines to enhancing the safety of locally grown produce during harvest, transport, and at the market.
Colorado Farm to School
A review of the statutory and regulatory structure of farm to school-related agricultural policies, with a focus on the interconnectedness of federal mandates on state regulatory structures and local county health regulations related to food safety. This guide is specific to Colorado, but much of the information is relevant to farm to school practitioners in other states.
Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food & Forestry
Provides helpful food safety information on everything from developing a food safety plan, to handling fresh produce, to safely serving produce from the school garden.
USDA and the National Food Service Management Institute
Recommendations for reducing the risks of food borne illness and minimizing the chances for fruits and vegetables to become contaminated.
USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service
Information about USDA’s independent voluntary agricultural practice audit program.
A host of food safety resources including tools, customizable forms, and templates to help farmers get organized about on-farm food safety. (Some areas of the site require registration to access).
Washington Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School Program
A compilation of food safety resources, including a Request for Proposals that incorporates food safety specifications.
Iowa State University Extension and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture
A checklist of questions for school food purchasers to ask local farmers before they buy their products.
Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition
A checklist meant to facilitate communication about farming practices and food safety between farmers and school food service directors.
USDA and the National Food Service Management
Provides tips to help the school foodservice professionals plan and conduct farm visits to discuss food safety practices.
North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension
A summary of the insurance coverage options available for growers of fresh fruits and vegetables.
North Carolina State University
School garden recommendations based on Good Agricultural Principles.
National Food Service Management Institute
School gardening tips regarding site selection, materials, and water use; chemical, fertilizer, compost, and manure use; growing and harvesting; and serving school garden produce through school meal programs.
Cornell Waste Management Institute
Introduces common sources of soil contaminants relevant for school gardens.
Denver Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services
An example one district’s protocols for school gardening, many of which address food safety.
Denver School Garden Coalition
An in-depth manual for school gardening in Denver that includes sections addressing food safety.