Food Safety

Last Modified: 08/21/2014

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.

Food Safety Questions to Consider
Background and Progress to Date

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?

State and Local Health Requirements

What food safety laws exist at the state and local levels that might affect your farm to school program?

TIP! Local health and state food regulatory agencies should be able to inform you of what requirements apply for school districts purchasing directly from farms, operating school gardens, and cooking from scratch.
Food Safety In the Kitchen

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?

For example: When operating farm to school programs, schools and districts often cook more meals from scratch or begin serving raw fruits and vegetables on a salad bar when they didn’t before. Other programs freeze or dry local foods or later use.

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?

For example: Some schools do not have some of the basic equipment needed to prepare fresh produce such as good knives, cutting boards, designated produce brushes, colanders, and salad spinners.

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?

For example: Many farm to school programs involve stakeholders outside of the school foodservice program who may need food safety training, including teachers, volunteers, other staff, or students, who might prepare or serve food in school gardens, classrooms, or other settings.
Food Safety In the School Garden

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)?

TIP! USDA does not require that school gardens be GAP-certified. However, following the science-based principles outlined in GAPs can help you manage food safety in your school garden.

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?

TIP! USDA highly recommends conducting a soil test before a garden is planted. If your soil is contaminated, there are alternatives to planting straight into the ground, such as installing raised beds and filling them with uncontaminated soil. To test soils, you can either send samples for analysis, or buy a soil testing kit. To learn more, contact your local Cooperative Extension office.

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?

TIP! Local and state agencies may have policies related to allowing produce from school gardens to be used in Child Nutrition Programs.

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?

Food Safety on the Farm and During Transport

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?

TIP! There are three basic methods for ensuring that local producers you work with (or are thinking of working with) have good food safety practices: 1) require producers to acquire a formal food safety certification (such as USDA’s GAP/GAP certification); 2) ask producers to conduct self-audits; and 3) visit the production or packing site yourself to observe and discuss food safety practices. You can also use a combination of these methods!

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?

For example: You can include specifications in your contracts related to the time between harvest and delivery, temperature of food during transport, cleanliness or delivery vehicles, and condition upon delivery.

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? 

TIP! There are several types of liability insurance (including General, Business, Product, and Recall) that a producer may hold, so be specific when you inquire.

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?

For example: Many distributors conduct periodic mock recalls to test their internal tracking systems. Mock recalls can even use customers to test their internal traceability programs. Have you ever conducted a mock recall in your school or district? If not, how might you work with your suppliers to plan a mock recall or develop one on your own?
General Food Safety

Farm to School Food Safety FAQs

USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service

Answers to common questions about food safety rules, working with local farmers, and handling fresh produce.

Produce Safety Resources

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.

Food Safety Resources

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.

Food Safety Publications and Resources

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.

Farm to School Food Safety Project

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.

Tips, Tools, and Guidelines for Food Distribution and Food Safety

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.

Best Practices for Handling Fresh Produce in Schools

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.

On-Farm Food Safety

USDA Good Agricultural Practices Audit Programs

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service

Information about USDA’s independent voluntary agricultural practice audit program.

The On-Farm Food Safety Project


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).

Good Agricultural Practices and Food Safety

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.

A Checklist for Purchasing Local Produce

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.

Checklist for Producers Selling Produce to Local K-12 Schools

Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition

A checklist meant to facilitate communication about farming practices and food safety between farmers and school food service directors.

Verifying On-Farm Food Safety Fact Sheet

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.

Insurance Coverage Options for Fresh Produce Growers

North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension

A summary of the insurance coverage options available for growers of fresh fruits and vegetables.

School Garden Safety

Growing Safer Gardens

North Carolina State University

School garden recommendations based on Good Agricultural Principles.

Food Safety Tips for School Gardens

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.

Sources and Impacts of Contaminants in Soil

Cornell Waste Management Institute

Introduces common sources of soil contaminants relevant for school gardens.

Garden to Cafeteria Program Protocol

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 Operating Manual

Denver School Garden Coalition

An in-depth manual for school gardening in Denver that includes sections addressing food safety.

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