Safe, Efficient Mass Feeding Strategies

Published on October 29, 2015
Healthcare professionals can help organize a food distribution team as one would the activities in an operating room, dividing team members into Operators, Circulators, and Monitors.

During mass feeding situations following disasters, food safety poses a potentially catastrophic health issue. Yet, despite the work of international organizations to educate their workers, many food preparers and servers have little or no training in food safety.

While safety parameters to minimize food contamination are well established, they may be difficult to transmit to novice personnel during disaster situations. The problem becomes magnified as the number of food preparation/serving teams and personnel involved increase.

When healthcare professionals are included in the process (as they should be), they can help organize the food distribution system as one would the activities in an operating room (OR; theatre). The clearly defined roles and the need for standard precautions in the OR can be easily adapted to a post-disaster scenario. The following simple, easily understood organizational structure can improve the food service team’s understanding of and compliance with basic food safety principles.

As in hospital operating rooms, the food delivery team can be divided into Operators, Circulators, and Monitors.

The Operators wear gloves and are instructed to touch nothing but the food itself. If they need to touch anything else, including the food packaging, they must change gloves immediately.

The Circulators, generally including the team’s leader, never touch unwrapped food. Rather, they provide the operators with the materials they need to prepare the food, supply wrapping for food, and then, as food distribution proceeds, they unwrap food trays, remove them when empty, replacing them with filled food containers.

Before food preparation begins, the team leader, a Circulator, plans how the team will distribute food to clients and ensures that food is maintained at proper temperatures. Preplanning is vital, since how the food will be distributed affects how food is then prepared. For example, quartered oranges need to be distributed by an Operator, while whole oranges can be accessed by the client without assistance.

The best food distribution arrangement begins with a hand sanitizer/washing station for clients, followed by an area for assisted food selection. In that area, plates are only handled by gloved food team Operators. Clients point to the food they want and Operators put it on their plate. If the client touches the plate, the process stops for them and they receive their plate with whatever is already on it.

At the end of the assisted food selection area, the client receives their plate. The client then selects from a variety of prepackaged condiments, sides (e.g., potato chips), desserts (e.g., whole fruit, packaged cookies), prepackaged utensils/napkin, and beverages.

The Monitor’s job is to ensure that the instructions for food preparation and distribution are being followed, and to help correct errors (preferably in a low-key manner).

Some groups that routinely provide disaster food services use similar methods with great success, albeit without this conceptual model. For example, in the aftermath of many hurricanes and other disasters, the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Response implemented a safe and effective food distribution system with near military precision (see accompanying photograph). Other large organizations that operate disaster shelters and other mass feeding sites do not use such models and often struggle to implement these basic food safety principles. Adopting this organizational approach can simplify both the training and the implementation of mass food service delivery.

Dr. Iserson is the author of “The Global Healthcare Volunteers’ Handbook: What You Need to Know Before You Go”.

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