- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - When Poplar Springs Christian Church has meat in its food pantry freezers, the administrator makes extra visits during the week to keep an eye on the thermostat.

“About once a week, I go down just to make sure my freezers are working,” said Katherine Branch, who has managed the church’s food pantry for about four years. “You never want to give any bad meat to the clients.”

Her caution is just one example of how food pantry volunteers do more than check sell-by dates: they must decide if sick volunteers can work, keep food off floors, maintain temperatures for meat and handle perishables.

Branch has participated in food handling training provided by the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina to help keep the donated food safe and the pantry’s clients healthy. However, a study by researchers at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill finds that pantry procedures are often informal, although they do a good job in many areas, including provided hand-washing facilities.

“Generally, we found they were doing things pretty well,” said Ben Chapman, senior author of a paper about pantries and food handling published in the Journal of Food Protection. “They were in line with what you see in at commercial entities.”

Safety was likely to be more formal at pantries were associated with a food bank, said Chapman, associate professor of youth, family and consumer sciences at N.C. State.

Chapman and a researcher from UNC-Chapel Hill visited 105 pantries in 12 counties. They then developed protocols for food pantry volunteers, such as a flow chart for when canned food should be tossed.

The researchers learned that some pantries get large cuts of fresh meat that their volunteers must cut, while almost 10 percent were accepting and distributing home-canned items, which can be risky because of the chance of botulism.

“From a hunger standpoint, that’s fantastic,” he said. “Just relying on canned foods and dried foods doesn’t give you a lot of choices … It’s really good for the hunger world, but there’s an increase in safety risks.”

The sell-by date is one of the issues where food pantry volunteers disagree. Even when they understand that food is safe by that date, they don’t want to distribute it because they didn’t want clients to feel like second-class citizens, Chapman said.

At the food pantry at Brooks Avenue Church of Christ in Raleigh, managers Jerry and Sharon Sents know canned food is OK beyond its sell-by date. “Of course if the can is rusted or has any kind of remarkable damage, we throw it out,” Sharon Sents said. “Canned goods can be a year old and it’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with them.”

Safety is the primary goal at Poplar Springs, but Branch also wants the boxes to look nice.

Clients “already feel bad,” she said. “They had to wait in line. They’re getting a box of food that may last a week or two weeks. I don’t want to treat them badly or give them something nobody wants.”

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Online:

https://foodsafety.ces.ncsu.edu/food-pantries-and-food-banks/

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Martha Waggoner can be reached at https://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc. Her work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/martha-waggoner

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