Volunteer cooks learn the basics of food safety, quality
Manning a stand or preparing food for a festival, church dinner, fish fry, fundraiser or school event are activities many enjoy and find fulfilling.
Those offering to help nonprofit, volunteer-run groups to prepare food to serve or sell to the public, however, should be aware of food safety and quality.
Penn State Extension offers the workshop "Cooking for Crowds: A Volunteers Guide to Safe Food Handling," to help keep participants current in methods of safe handling and food preparation for large groups.
During a recent workshop at the Salvation Army in Monessen, registered dietitian and Extension educator Dori Owczarzak packs a great deal of information into an afternoon of education.
Among the most common causes of foodborne illness, Owczarzak notes, are:
• failing to cook food adequately
• holding food at inaccurate temperatures
• using contaminated equipment
• poor personal hygiene
• purchasing or obtaining food from unsafe sources
"Keep hot food hot at 140 degrees or higher, and cold food cold at 40 degrees or less," Owczarzak says.
"The rule of thumb is never let food sit out for more than two hours," she adds.
And be aware of what your hands are touching.
"If I'm on my cellphone, you don't want me making your food," she adds.
Cooking for the public, Owczarzak tells the approximately dozen women attending the workshop, is not like cooking at home.
Food is being prepared for many more people, there are lots of hands in the kitchen and there are more processes happening simultaneously.
"There is greater risk for cross-contamination," she notes.
"The food that we eat is sold and processed all over the world. There are so many opportunities for things to go wrong," she says.
Keeping it clean
From a very young age, children are taught to wash their hands — after using the bathroom, playing outside, before dinner.
It can't be over emphasized, says Owczarzak.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees.
Did you know hand sanitizer won't kill some viruses like norovirus, which can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea? Follow the link to a CDC fact sheet to learn when hand washing with soap and water is a better choice. https://t.co/aY12wrsmLd pic.twitter.com/lWpYLntuLV— NH Public Health (@NHPubHealth) April 17, 2018
Hands should be washed throughout the process of food preparation, including after touching one's hair or face, smoking, handling garbage or coughing, Owczarzak says.
A cursory rinse won't do. Proper hand washing requires water, lots of soap, washing over and under one's hands, between the fingers and beneath the nails, she adds.
Count slowly to 20, or sing the happy birthday song to yourself, she suggests.
Beyond strains of bacteria that can travel with foods, one has to consider susceptible populations - people over 65, who are pregnant, children, people with chronic illnesses or who have recently undergone surgery.
"We have to handle food as if everyone we are serving is high risk," Owczarzak says.
Food preparers also must consider common allergens, she says, including "the big 8"— peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, milk, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish.
"Look at the menu, determine which foods are potentially hazardous, and what are you doing to keep them safe," she says.
Ready to eat foods — those requiring no further washing or cooking — should not be handled with bare hands, Owczarzak adds.
A peanut butter and jelly sandwich made at home with bare hands becomes a ready to eat food if prepared for public consumption.
Those handling sandwiches or cookies or ice cream cones, she adds, should be using gloves, tissues or utensils.
Owczarzak also reviews molds and yeast, and physical hazards including metal shavings, glass and plastic, jewelry and fake fingernails, toothpicks, hair, cherry pits, pests and fish bones.
"Restrain your hair, leave jewelry at home," she says.
Pearl Meade of Rostraver Township nods, saying she has noticed — and wondered about — some chefs on cooking shows wearing rings or other jewelry.
Meade volunteers with her church to prepare dinners, sometimes for multiple congregations, and was curious about the workshop.
"I just wanted to see what I'm not doing. I always want to learn something different," she says.
Legal guidelines, proper storage container use and acceptable foods prepared in home kitchens also were discussed.
Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @MaryPickels.