The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture has awarded a $542,999 grant to a Clemson University food safety scientist to study how norovirus spreads in elementary schools, a project that is especially timely given the addition of salad bars in many school lunch programs.

Angela Fraser, an associate professor and food safety specialist in the food, nutrition and packaging science department, will lead a three-year project — titled “Hand Hygiene Promotion: An Essential Strategy for Preventing Foodborne Illness in Elementary Schools” — to identify conditions for the transmission of norovirus in 10 South Carolina elementary schools.

Fraser’s multi-university team will also develop and promote educational materials aimed at children, teachers and food-service workers. The study’s first phase, conducted with colleagues at North Carolina State University and Michigan State University, will have observers in selected elementary schools looking closely at hygiene habits.

“Everyone is susceptible to norovirus, but children might be at greater risk,” Fraser said in a university news release. “Crowded settings, shared objects and poor hygiene practices can all contribute to the transfer of norovirus in the school environment. We can lower the odds if we can identify how they are being spread so we can develop appropriate interventions to prevent episodes of illness.”

Fraser noted that offering students more self-service lunch options in school cafeterias — such as bowls of fresh fruit and salad bars — has presented a need for research about the spread of norovirus. “Food safety efforts in schools tend to focus on the food-handling practices of the workers and not the children,” she said. “Infected children could very easily contaminate food while they are serving themselves or sharing foods with others.”

Noroviruses are the most common cause of gastroenteritis in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC estimates that noroviruses each year cause more than 20 million cases of acute gastroenteritis — about 1 in every 15 Americans will get norovirus illness annually though contact with contaminated foods, surfaces and individuals.

Norovirus is also estimated to cause more than 70,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths each year in the United States.

Symptoms of norovirus infection typically include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomach cramps.

The CDC offers these tips to reduce chances of getting the illness:

— Wash your hands carefully with soap and water, especially after using the toilet and changing diapers and always before eating or preparing food. It is important to dry hands thoroughly with a single-use paper towel after washing. Food illness experts say alcohol-based hand rubs are not yet effective against norovirus, but there should be a few breakthrough in the near future.

— Clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces by using a bleach-based household cleaner as directed on the product label. If no such cleaning product is available, you can use a solution made with five tablespoons to 1.5 cups of household bleach per one gallon of water.

— Immediately remove and wash clothing or linens that may be contaminated with vomit or stool. Handle soiled items carefully — without agitating them — to avoid spreading virus. If available, wear rubber or disposable gloves while handling soiled items and wash your hands after handling. The items should be washed with detergent in hot water at the maximum available cycle length and then machine dried.