Managing Food Safety in School Cafeterias

School cafeterias must uphold extremely high standards of food safety to prevent food poisoning and manage student food allergies.
September 11, 2019

School cafeterias feed millions of Canadian school children every year. Cafeterias are regularly inspected by public health authorities, and must uphold the same high standards of food safety and hygiene as any other food premise — if not higher, because children are more susceptible to food-borne illness and more likely to have serious food allergies.

Safe food handling in a school cafeteria is of the utmost importance, and requires the full attention of everyone who works in it. With so much on the line, cutting corners when it comes to food safety is simply not an option.

The importance of good hygiene

Working in food service means you need to keep food safety in mind at all times; maintaining high standards of personal hygiene is a huge part of it. Everything around us is literally teeming with bacteria and other microorganisms — some good, some bad — and it’s unbelievably easy for microscopic germs to travel from your hands to someone else’s food.

Hand washing is one of the most important things that you can do as a Food Handler. Wash your hands before you start work; before and after you touch food; after handling dirty dishes or utensils; after handling money; after using the bathroom — and about a thousand times in between.

As a general rule, if there’s any chance you’ve picked up bacteria by touching something (e.g. wiping your hands on your apron, putting on a hair net, picking up a dirty cloth, touching money, etc.), wash them thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

To protect the young people in your care, be sure to follow these food safety rules:

  • Clean uniforms and aprons daily, and change protective outer clothing if it becomes contaminated or may have become contaminated.
  • Wear hair restraints (hair or beard nets) in all areas where food is being prepared.
  • Wash your hands before and after putting on disposable gloves; change gloves if they become contaminated or torn; change gloves every two to four hours and never reuse disposable gloves.
  • Don’t work when you’re sick, especially if you’re experiencing symptoms of food-borne illness (e.g. nausea, fever, vomiting, diarrhea).

It’s important to remember that food-borne illness isn’t just an upset stomach — it can have serious and long-lasting consequences, particularly for the most vulnerable among us.

Safe food storage and display

Food storage is an extremely important part of food safety. When food is stored improperly or at the wrong temperature, it becomes a breeding ground for bacteria.

Perishable foods must be kept in sealed containers and promptly refrigerated before they enter the Temperature Danger Zone (between 4°C and 60°C), which is the temperature range in which bacteria thrive (doubling every four to 20 minutes).

Never leave high-risk foods like meat, eggs or dairy at room temperature for too long; after two hours in the danger zone, high-risk foods must be thrown out, and this time is cumulative — so transport, delivery and prep time counts.

Here are a few helpful reminders about safe food storage and display:

  • Store raw meat, fish and poultry on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, below ready-to-eat foods or fresh produce. Keep it covered with plastic wrap or in sealed containers.
  • Store dry goods in sealed packages or containers; store off the ground and away from the wall to deter pests.
  • Display hot foods at 60°C or above — remember to preheat hot holding equipment and make sure that hot food is cooked/reheated to at least 74°C before placing it into hot holding equipment.
  • Display cold foods at 4°C or below — it’s all about keeping high-risk foods out of the danger zone! Find out more about high-risk foods.

Any foods that are on display for self-service should either be packaged in sealed wrapping or should have proper serving utensils like tongs or spoons — students should never have a reason to touch food with their bare hands.

Cross-contamination and food allergies

Cross-contamination is when food becomes contaminated with something harmful. “Something harmful” could be something that would be dangerous for anyone to ingest, like a disease-causing bacteria or a piece of broken glass; or, for some people, it could be a certain food that causes them to have an allergic reaction.

To prevent cross-contamination from happening in your school, be sure to do the following:

  • Clean and sanitize food preparation surfaces, equipment, dishes and utensils before and after use.
  • Keep raw and cooked/ready-to-eat foods separate.
  • Use separate cutting boards, utensils and equipment for raw and cooked/ready-to-eat foods.
  • Dispose of cracked or chipped dishes, glassware or utensils.
  • Don't reuse cutting boards or equipment for different ingredients (e.g. using the same knife to chop peanuts and then cut vegetables for a salad).
  • Don't substitute one ingredient for another in a recipe. If you must substitute, inform — make sure each and every student who orders the dish knows about the substitution, just to be safe.
  • Follow your school’s food allergen policy — do not order, prepare or serve any restricted food items.

In order to effectively manage food allergies in a school setting, it’s also important to have well-defined policies and procedures in place. These policies should cover:

  • food safety training for Food Handlers and service staff
  • your school’s food allergy policy and restricted food items (if any)
  • how food allergens will be identified and documented internally
  • how food allergens will be communicated to students

Remember, any food can be an allergen and even trace amounts could be lethal to a student. It’s very important that Food Handlers are properly trained on safe food handling techniques and follow food safety protocols to ensure the safety and well-being of the young people in their care.

For more information about food safety training, including online food safety training courses like the CIFS Food Handler Certification course, visit our course page or contact us at 1 800 505 9145.