Eating fruits and vegetables provides health benefits–like nutrients that can help protect you from some chronic diseases. While eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is essential to a healthy diet, it’s important to select and prepare them safely. Raw fruits and vegetables may contain harmful germs such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that germs on fresh produce cause approximately 46% of foodborne illnesses in the United States. However, there are proven food safety practices–from growing to preparation to service–that can reduce risk of illness associated with fresh produce.
Fresh Produce in School Meals
School meals are an important source of fruits and vegetables for kids of all ages. According to the School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study, conducted during school year 2014-15, the majority of schools (81%) offered fresh fruits and/or vegetables (raw or cooked from fresh) in National School Lunch Program (NSLP) lunches every day.
Farm to school activities contribute to the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables procured and served in school meals, which can promote a fresh, healthy, and diverse diet for students and support local economies.
Defining and Prioritizing Food Safety Research and Resource Needs for Farm to School Activities
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) advances food safety education and practices in federal nutrition assistance programs through research conducted by the Center for Food Safety in Child Nutrition Programs (the Center). To better understand food safety concerns associated with fresh produce and farm to school activities, the Center conducted a study to:
- Assess program operators’ perceptions of factors likely to impact the safety of farm to school produce.
- Provide insight into program operators’ confidence in the safety of produce procured through farm to school initiatives.
- Identify sources of produce safety information most frequently used by program operators.
Farm to school state program coordinators from all 50 states were invited to nominate at least five program operators involved in farm to school initiatives to participate in a three-phase expert panel study.
Forty program operators, from 22 states, who obtained fresh fruit or vegetables through farm to school initiatives in USDA-supported school nutrition programs during the 2018-19 school year participated in the study.
Most participants represented small (less than 2,500 students) or medium (2,500-19,999 students) school districts. Most respondents were school nutrition directors (n=35), and more than half (n=23) had been employed in school foodservice for 5-15 years.
Most participants indicated that their districts had active involvement in farm to school activities (95%), with fruits and vegetables accounting for the highest estimated annual percentage of the district’s farm to school purchases.
Factors Influencing Produce Safety in Schools
Participants ranked farmer’s knowledge of food safety requirements and school nutrition staff’s knowledge about food safety as having the most positive impact on farm to school produce safety. A farm’s size was identified by participants as having the least impact on produce safety.
Participants indicated that Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification would influence their decision to purchase produce from local farms, and most participants believed that the safest produce comes from farms with GAP certification, as compared to farms without GAP certification.
Confidence in Produce Safety by Source
Participants reported similar levels in confidence between local produce obtained directly from vendors and produce obtained directly from farmers.
Food Safety Resources for Farm to School
Most participants agreed that sufficient educational resources are available to ensure food safety when implementing produce-focused farm to school activities. Some participants indicated that resources about packaging requirements for transportation and GAP certification requirements were lacking.
Researchers developed a list of the sources of farm to school food safety information most frequently used by participants. The USDA and state agencies were most frequently ranked as the most helpful sources.
The findings of this study provide insights into program operators’ perspectives on produce safety. While each school nutrition program has its own unique needs and challenges, this research suggests opportunities exist to support program operator understanding and implementation of food safety practices associated with fresh fruits and vegetables.
Opportunities to Strengthen Produce Safety in Farm to School Activities
- Customize produce safety training for different audiences in the farm to school community, such as school nutrition professionals, distributors, and farmers.
- Focus training on processes that most influence school nutrition professionals’ confidence in the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables, such as procurement, distribution, transportation, and storage.
- Help school nutrition professionals and farmers understand GAP certification in the context of school meals and farm to school procurement.
- Disseminate produce safety information, including training and resources, through sources most commonly used by and helpful to school nutrition professionals, including the USDA and state agencies.
- Conduct structured observations to further research and more closely identify factors impacting food safety in farm to school activities.
Ensuring the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables served in school meals is important whether they’re sourced from a large supplier or local farmer. FNS offers a variety of produce safety resources just for school nutrition professionals!
- Check-out these produce safety resources, including fact sheets, videos, training materials, and Produce Safety University–an experiential learning program that immerses participants in the fresh produce supply chain.
- Get support for local procurement with the Farm to School fact sheets.
- Learn from your peers through the Child Nutrition Sharing Site-your one stop shop for all operation-related child nutrition program resources, including Farm to School.