Food Safety and Staffing for Volunteer Food Facilities

Soup kitchens, food pantries, and other volunteer food facilities are a godsend for low-income individuals and families who struggle with food insecurities.

Non-profit charitable organizations hold food drives and fundraisers to provide these services. Volunteers can go to the nearest market and find supplies, prepare hot meals and distribute non-perishable canned and dry goods to those in need.

While volunteer food facilities provide much-needed assistance to the homeless population and housed families and individuals who can’t afford to put food on the table, improper food handling procedures and distribution of expired foods can make the recipients of these services very sick.

Volunteering at food facilities can be very rewarding.

Unsurprisingly, volunteering at soup kitchens and food distribution centers can also be beneficial to the volunteers. Many people who have never experienced food insecurity haven’t been able to understand what hunger feels like. Volunteering can be a very eye-opening experience.

Eventually, you may get to know homeless people and struggling parents who regularly come to the soup kitchen for a hot meal or visit the food pantry weekly to stock up on food. You’ll have the opportunity to hear their stories and begin to empathize with their situation. You’ll also feel good about yourself for doing a good deed.

If you don’t want the hands-on experience of volunteering, you can alternatively donate your extra non-perishable goods to food drives to make a difference in your community.

Volunteer food facilities make an impact on the community.

According to the USDA, over 38 million Americans struggle with food insecurities- 12 million of them being children. Additionally, there are currently over a half million homeless people in the United States.

Most of these people depend on government programs, such as food stamps, to keep food in their refrigerator. However, their food stamp benefit amount often isn’t enough to stretch through the month- especially with the rising costs of groceries.

It’s usually even harder for homeless people as they don’t have a way to store and prepare food. If they do receive food stamps, the benefits are often spent on cold sandwiches and snacks. Soup kitchens are often their only source of a hot meal.

Volunteer food facilities can utilize remote donations.

If you’re struggling to have volunteers onsite, there are alternative ways for others to help. You can make use of mail courier services and ask your community for non-perishable donations. Simply provide them with your UPS tracking address, and the delivery personnel will pick up and send the items directly to your food pantry site.

Importance of food safety at volunteer food facilities

Volunteer food facilities have an impact on both the lives of the volunteers as well as the people being served. These facilities reduce the rates of panhandling, crime, and child hunger. They foster feelings of kindness, empathy, and hope. But they can also be breeding grounds for bacteria and food-borne illnesses.

Often, well-meaning people and even some grocery chains will donate expired canned goods, meats, and produce to charitable organizations to be distributed to the needy. Even though they can no longer sell these foods and wouldn’t dare eat them, they still don’t want to see food go to waste.

Also, soup kitchens rarely adhere to the safe food handling procedures that restaurants are legally required to follow. After all, it’s free food that volunteers serve out of the goodness of their hearts. Many volunteers have no prior restaurant experience and may not even be aware of food safety beyond hand-washing.

Some people even go as far as to assume that beggars can’t be choosers and that people will eat anything if they’re hungry enough. Although this can be true in a sense, neglecting to follow food safety procedures can lead to food-borne illnesses.

Dangers of serving or distributing expired foods

Grocery chains often donate meat, produce, and dairy products that have reached their sell-by dates. Many of these recently expired foods are still safe for consumption, provided they remain frozen until distribution.

Occasionally, these foods defrost on route to the volunteer food facilities or sit out on tables on distribution days. Most of the time, the food is still good, but there is still a risk of the development of salmonella or E.coli, which are two of the bacteria most commonly associated with food poisoning.

Good Samaritans are also well-known for donating expired canned and dried goods that had been sitting in the back of their food pantries for years. Although these foods are referred to as non-perishables, they actually do have an expiration date. Expired, rusted, or damaged canned goods may contain the botulism toxin, which can make people sick.

Safe food handling procedures

Of course, volunteers need to wash their hands and forearms with antibacterial soap for at least two minutes before touching any food, but it’s also advisable for volunteers to wear food preparation gloves. Stomach pain is a common symptom that can have various causes, such as indigestion, food poisoning, or gastroenteritis. When preparing food for others, it’s important to take precautions to prevent the spread of harmful bacteria that can cause stomach pain and other illnesses.

If you’re volunteering at a food facility, you should check the expiration dates on foods prior to serving them. You also need to change your gloves and wash your hands regularly to avoid cross-contamination, especially if you’re preparing meats. You need to be careful when handling raw chicken and disinfect all surfaces that the chicken has come in contact with.

Most meats need to be heated to an internal temperature of at least 140 degrees. Avoid refreezing meats that have completely defrosted. After serving the food, the tables need to be wiped down and sanitized, garbage needs to be discarded, and dishes should be washed in hot, soapy water.

Also, keep in mind that many homeless people are unable to regularly bathe or wash their laundry. Volunteer food facilities need to disinfect tables and chairs and encourage persons served to wash their hands before entering the food line and being seated.

Implementing food safety procedures at volunteer food facilities will prevent needy individuals and families from developing food-borne illnesses, while allowing these facilities to continue to make a positive impact on communities.