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Mike Burke
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10.23.20

K-12 Kitchen Safety During COVID-19

COVID-19 has challenged the foodservice industry in new and unprecedented ways. As a K-12 Foodservice Director, you’re already well aware of the new challenges facing our profession. The good news? School kitchens all over the country are adapting with new measures and strategies designed to safely and effectively feed children -- both in in-person and online learning settings. Here’s a closer look at key issues facing K-12 foodservice organizations, along with best practices for tips aimed at addressing them and supporting kitchen safety in general.

Key K-12 School Meal Issues During COVID

As schools continue to roll out their reopening plans, there are many safety-related logistics to consider. Additionally, while food insecurity was a national concern prior to the pandemic, it’s now taken center stage. To help K-12 foodservice operations plan and prepare, the National Governors Association (NGA) identified several areas of focus for K-12, including the following:

  • Cleaning and Sanitization: All schools should implement and follow regular cleaning and sanitization practices in places where food is prepared and consumed. This includes updating operating procedures for cleaning both food production facilities and surfaces in frequent contact with students and staff. Some states have also recommended the use of washable plastic tablecloths on hard-to-clean surfaces like wood.
  • Crowding and Social Distancing: Social distancing during meal consumption is recommended, and can be implemented in several ways, including through staggered mealtimes, reconfigured seating arrangements and/or the use of physical barriers between tables, and new traffic flow with designated entrances and exits to route students through spaces.
  • Meal Consumption Locations: In addition to following social distancing guidelines, schools should also explore alternative spaces for eating, such as outdoor areas, gyms and libraries. This also means developing plans -- such as “grab-and-go” and classroom delivery service -- for the safe and easy distribution of meals to students who don’t pick up in the cafeteria.
  • Meal Service Styles: On-site meal service styles like individually portioned and prepackaged meals are encouraged while self-serve buffets and family-style systems are discouraged. This involves coordinating with vendors and adjusting school supply chain considerations accordingly.
  • Meal Claiming and Payment: Contactless meal claiming and payment methods, such as online ordering, scanners, and app-based payment are recommended, as is the wearing of masks and gloves by staff using POS touch pads and the availability of hand-sanitizer in situations where contactless payment is not possible.
  • Meal Distribution for Online Learning: Schools should have plans to ensure continued access to nutrition services when in-person instruction is not possible. Suggested distribution methods include grab-and-go meal pickup services with drive-thru and curbside pickup options, using bus tours for meal distribution, and meal delivery to student homes.

Keep in mind that while these are guidelines, schools should also adhere to their state and local food safety regulations for preparing and distributing student meals.

Other priorities include safeguarding the health and wellness of foodservice personnel, communicating with students and family members, and collaborating with key stakeholders, such as community nutrition organizations, whenever possible.

Ongoing Best Practices for K-12 Kitchen Safety

While the current crisis has heightened awareness of the need for K-12 food safety, the topic will continue to be important -- even when the coronavirus is behind us. As foodservice professionals, we know that operating a foodservice kitchen carries basic risks. Adhering to the following best practices can help keep safety at the forefront in your K-12 kitchen:

Proper training of all staff on everything from equipment operation to cleaning and sanitizing is critical to keeping your kitchen safe and running smoothly.

Foodservice is labor-intensive and physically demanding. Mindful kitchen design can help create safer and more efficient use of space. Attention to workflow; slip prevention through proper flooring, cleaning and drainage; good lighting; and attention to HVAC systems can support performance, productivity and morale in the kitchen while simultaneously reducing the risk of injury.

Other common kitchen dangers include physical strain, the equipment itself, hot water, sharp tools and cleaning chemicals. Proper and proactive attention to these hazards can help keep all members of your kitchen community safe. For example, the use of mobile carts and other equipment with castors can reduce the risk of injuries resulting from pushing, pulling, carrying and lifting tasks.

Providing nutritionally balanced, affordable meals to children is at the center of every school lunch program. In this sense, while the specifics may have changed during COVID-19, the overarching theme remains the same. Following best practices both now and moving forward is an invaluable investment in the safety and wellness of your entire school community.

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