At Grow Your Lunch, we care about food systems change. We envision food systems in which people buy from local food producers, and on-site edible gardens supply supplemental produce to cafes, cafeterias, restaurants and home kitchens.
In order for this to work, however, those of us charged with making sure these gardens are successful have to learn an awful lot, specifically regarding food safety and Good Agricultural Practices (“GAPs”). In order to provide food that is safe, reliable and delicious, our movement needs to professionalize itself. And fortunately this is happening, little by little. In cities around the US, from Ventura to Chicago, Detroit to Denver, Atlanta to Mountain View, educational gardens are taking the necessary steps to becoming approved food sources.
So what are GAPs?
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, GAPs are:
“practices that address environmental, economic and social sustainability for on-farm processes, and result in safe and quality food and nonfood agricultural products”
And why do GAPs matter in garden to cafeteria programs?
First and foremost, using GAPs minimizes the risk of food borne illness. Following GAPs can also increase the likelihood of administrative “buy-in” for piloting garden to cafeteria programs. Following GAPs can help minimize potential for liability issues for third party organizations operating gardens on private and public property. Following GAPs also increases the overall professionalism of your garden program and makes it more educational as an example of industry standards.
GAPs: Six Primary Areas of Consideration
There are six primary categories of consideration for GAPs in school gardens: Water, Soils, Land Use and Animal Access, Tools Equipment and Storage, Employee and Volunteer Training, and Record Keeping.
First of all you need to know where your water is coming from. Is it stored or coming directly from the source? If you’re using municipal water, the city government is responsible for testing water but it is always recommended to conduct a water test “in-house” for potential contaminants once a year. Always record and date your water test results. Stored rainwater should generally not be used to irrigate vegetable crops unless special steps are being taken to ensure it is not contaminated. Any water that comes into contact with food post-harvest must be 100% potable.
You must test your soil at least once a year. If you’re growing in the ground, test for chemical and/or heavy metal contamination (always remember to date and record results). Use Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI)–certified materials for building and filling raised beds. If you plan to use manure, first check to see if it’s OK to use manure in your county. If it is, observe 90-120 days to harvest rule for application on fruit crops and vegetables, respectively, in accordance with USDA organic standards. If you plan to use compost made on site, first check to see if it’s OK to use compost made on site in your city and county. If it is allowed, make sure your compost meets USDA organic standards for heating and aeration. If using your own compost is not allowed, use an OMRI-certified compost product. Vermicompost is normally OK, but it’s always worth checking local regulations. If you use other amendments and sprays, always use as recommended on the package label and in accordance with soil test data. If using a sprayer, be sure it is cleaned and dried thoroughly before storage. A “Soil Amendment Application” log should be kept for all soils and soil amendment applications, documenting the following: date of application, product name, bed/block applied to, amount applied/area, etc.
III. Land Use and Animal Access
First, learn the history of your site: Is there a history of flooding or other potential for contamination at your site? Familiarize yourself with adjacent land use: What’s happening upstream/upwind? Can buffers, setbacks and/or windbreaks minimize impact of adjacent activities? Domestic and wild animals should be kept out of active growing areas at all times: Physical barriers such as fences, raised beds and hoops with screen or row covers can mitigate animal intrusion. Keep a “Rare Occurrence Log” to document incidents of animal intrusion or potential contamination and what was done about it (food safety is all about due diligence and traceability, so the better your records are the safer you and the food you grow will be).
IV. Tools, Equipment and Storage
If your tools, surfaces and containers come into contact with food postharvest, they must be cleaned/sanitized at an appropriate frequency based on 1.) How dirty each gets, 2.) How frequently it is used, and 3.) The level of food contamination risk associated with the tool/surface or container in question. This is decided at each site. Use separate containers for temporary storage of clean and dirty tools and equipment (while in active use). Post-cleaning, tools and equipment must be stored off the ground and kept away from animals and other contaminants. A “Tool and Equipment Cleaning Log” must be kept, documenting the name of tool/equipment item cleaned, date cleaned, by whom, types of cleaning products and procedures used.
V. Employee and Volunteer Training
The most important training for employees and volunteers is personal hygiene. Any person leading gardening and/or harvesting activities should undergo personal hygiene training, which must include hand-washing procedures and protocols for identifying sickness, allergies, and dealing with emergencies (injury, bleeding), etc. Anyone leading gardening and/or harvesting activities should also undergo GAPs training and should be able to confidently lead groups through approved harvesting and post-harvest handling protocols and logistics associated with your program.
VI. Record Keeping
The following records should be kept for your garden to cafe, cafeteria or restaurant program:
- Soil Testing Data
- Water Testing Data
- Applications/Inputs: All manure, compost, organic amendment, sprays (include date of application, product name, bed/block applied to, amount applied/area, etc.)
- Planting: Date, crop, variety, plant or seed source, bed/block name or number, quantity planted, success rate, etc.
- Harvesting: Date/time, crop, variety, bed/block harvested from, name of harvest leader, name/signature of receiver. All produce delivered must also be labeled with the harvest date/time, crop, variety, bed/block harvested from, name of harvest leader, name/signature of receiver, quantity of product and the crop/variety of the product. Adding a harvest # or code can help with traceability in large programs.
- Rare Occurrence Log: Animal intrusion, suspected contamination of any kind and “corrective action” taken
- Tool and Equipment Cleaning Log
- Employee and/or Volunteer Training Records
- Annual Self-Audit/Traceability Records
Grow Your Lunch is here to help you make your garden to cafeteria program a success. We can facilitate the development of a successful garden to cafe, restaurant or cafeteria program by providing you with the following resources:
- A customized Planting and Harvesting Calendar and Crop Plan
- A Garden to Cafeteria Protocols Manual, customized to meet the specific public health and food safety regulations of your city and county
- Professional Development Workshops for employees and volunteers managing your program
- Tools and Strategies for using garden produce without a prep kitchen facility
- Program Marketing Strategy to build buy-in and participation in your program
Grow Your Lunch, LLC has provided this information as completely and accurately as possible, however, we accept no legal responsibility whatsoever for incorrect, insufficient or inadequate food safety risk management, or for any errors or omissions in the information provided herein.
Read this article on the Edible Schoolyard blog.
Local University Cooperative Ag. Extensions