As you read this, please keep in mind that back in the 1970s and 80s, my family — ma, pa, and the kids — had a 20-acre place in northern Idaho. We raised sheep, goats, chickens and rabbits, and put in an orchard, several acres of hay, and a huge garden. We believed that the more natural something was, the healthier it was for you. We were, in short, back-to-the-landers.

I introduce myself this way so you’ll understand that those years in northern Idaho gave me some “grounded” experience in taking care of the land and growing things. It was my life for 15 years. It was the favorite part of my life.

Now that I’m semi-retired — after working as a staff writer for an agricultural publication for 12 years — I write freelance articles for Food Safety News and donate time (and passion) to various community organizations. As part of that, I volunteer at Helping Hands Food Bank in Sedro-Woolley, WA. food bank is a busy place. Each Wednesday, we give out food to 600-plus families (sometimes as many as 800 families), which represents more than 2,000 people who receive food from us each week. This adds up to an impressive amount of food: 20,000 to 30,000 pounds each week.

We get our food donations from a variety of sources, among them USDA, grocery stores, local farms, and individuals. Because we’re in the fertile Skagit Valley in western Washington, we get a lot of food donations “direct from the farm.” We also buy some food from local farms.

Yes, food banks have budgets, and they can use some of the money they receive from donors to buy food from local farmers.

As for how your farm might fit into this, let’s start off by looking at who many of the people coming to the food bank are. If you were to volunteer for a day and give out food to people going through the line, you’d see a lot of mothers with very young children and babies, older people who are frail, people recovering from an illness or disease such as cancer, veterans with health problems, and people who are in poor health for various reasons.

Please keep this in mind because these are the people who are more vulnerable to becoming ill (sometimes seriously ill) from foodborne illnesses. They are also the people who suffer the most harm from foodborne illnesses. In short, these are the people whose health you are safeguarding.

Please don’t let any of this discourage you from donating or selling to your local food bank. The people who receive the food are always happy to get fresh produce — all the better if it’s from a local farm. Like you, they believe that local farms play an important part in providing quality food that’s healthy to eat.

It’s always a happy day for us and the food bank’s clients when we can give out food from local farms. During the growing season, it happens a lot. We feel so fortunate that we have such generous farmers in our valley. I’m sure this is true for many other food banks as well.

Food safety front and center

In addition to donations from local farms, we are extremely fortunate to get donations from the nearby grocery stores through a program called Grocery Rescue. It’s similar to programs across the nation that receive donations from grocery stores in their area.

But it isn’t as simple as going and picking up the food. The stores and food banks actually have agreements to follow strict food-safety practices. An important part of this is making sure that the food that’s picked up at the store is at the proper temperature (41 degrees F for most produce) and that it stays at that temperature while it’s being transported to the food bank. From there, it must be put in a cooler or freezer and kept cool or frozen, until it’s time to give it out. Records are kept every step of the way.

Meat and chicken must be handled with extreme care. For example, containers of poultry must never be placed on top of containers of other meats. The containers must also be cleaned before meat and poultry products are put into them and also before being returned to the stores. As with the produce we receive, the meat, poultry, fish and dairy products are immediately put into the cooler or freezer until it’s time to give them out.

producebasket-iphoneIt is this commitment to food safety that has opened the way for stores across the nation to donate millions of pounds of perishables each year to food banks and other feeding programs across the nation. This is food that would have, for the most part, been sent to a landfill. Instead, it’s feeding many thousands of families and individuals.

The donated produce from the stores is still good to eat but needs to be replaced with fruits and vegetables that are coming into the store each day. Sometimes there’s just too much of some items, or sometimes it’s not as “perfect looking” as consumers prefer. The other day, for example, we received an entire flat of grapes rejected by a store because they weren’t large enough, yet they were free of blemishes and absolutely delicious.

What does this have to do with donations from local farms? Or food that local farms sell to food banks? The simple answer is that farmers donating or selling food to food banks need to pay the same strict attention to food safety as the stores do. Yes, your food is locally grown and therefore doesn’t have to be transported long distances. And, yes, it’s good healthy food. And, yes, you want to help low-income people get some fresh fruits and vegetables. And, yes, perhaps you don’t use any pesticides.

But foodborne pathogens that can get people sick don’t know any of that. Like us, their main goal is survival. And those that survive reproduce. The more there are, the more likely they will be able to infect people eating the contaminated food. That’s why keeping food at the proper temperature is so important. Most pathogens don’t reproduce, or they reproduce very slowly, at lower temperatures.

Foodborne illnesses are caused by microscopic bacteria, viruses or protozoa on, or in, contaminated food. Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, and Campylobacter are examples of these pathogens.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die as a result of foodborne illnesses.

And while a lot of these cases involve meat from large packing companies, many of them involve produce.

Out on the farm, food can be contaminated in all sorts of ways: exposure to manure, contaminated irrigation water, compost that hasn’t been aged thoroughly enough to kill pathogens, deer droppings, unsanitary storage containers, sick employees. The list goes on and on.

For the most part, contamination doesn’t happen if the farm follows strict food-safety guidelines simply because the pathogens won’t be present in the first place. The key word here is “sanitation” — sanitation at every step of the way.

Go here for a video about a food safety program designed for small and diversified farms.

Some challenging foods

Most of the fruits and vegetables donated to the food bank don’t need any special care except for keeping them cool enough when necessary and making sure they’re clean and  haven’t started to rot. But some crops do need special care.

Cut greens the case of cut greens, which includes raw spinach and most lettuces, pathogens (if they’re present) will gravitate to the nutrients oozing out of the cut part of the leaves. Think of people on a cruise ship when it’s time for dinner. The rush is on! The same scene plays out in the world of pathogens. Once on the cut greens, they hang on tight and can’t be washed off, at least for the most part. Triple washing might help but doesn’t get all of the microbes. And if the temperature of the cut greens is above 41 degrees F, the microbes start reproducing. Think spring break — good food and warm weather. What could be a better setting?

In this case, we’re talking about greens that will be eaten raw — typically raw baby spinach and other salad greens.

I mention cut greens and lettuces (this doesn’t include intact head lettuce) because many small-scale farmers rely on them because they can be grown from early spring to late fall, thus giving farmers a longer selling season. The irony here is that according to USDA,  greens are one of the most nutritious foods people can eat. Yet at the same time, the Food and Drug Administration has them on its list of high-risk foods simply because they can become contaminated so easily. One reason for this is that they grow close to the soil where pathogens can be lurking.

After seeing too many displays of cut greens on farmers market tables exposed to the sun, I’ve come to the conclusion that some farmers just don’t know that the greens need to be kept cool. That’s why I mention it here.

Bottom line, if you have leftover greens from your farmers market stand and if you haven’t kept them cool enough, you shouldn’t donate them to a food bank. The same goes for cut greens that have been harvested and left in the field too long before being cooled down. No matter how healthy they are, they can potentially make people sick.

A good thing to keep in mind here is that quality and food safety go hand in hand. Food that has been taken care of in ways to make sure it’s safe is, for the most part, higher in quality and taste. Crisp greens, instead of droopy greens, are a good example of that.

Go here for information about an E. coli outbreak in fresh bagged spinach that killed five people and sickened more than 200 and another E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce products. These are just two examples of food poisoning caused by cut greens.

Fruits and veggies

Fruits and vegetables that are grown high up from the soil and that can easily be washed can also pose a problem if there are nicks, cuts or mold on them. That’s because microbes can get into them through those openings and actually contaminate the interior flesh. That’s why it’s so important to make sure packing boxes and equipment are kept clean. Employees also need to receive food safety training. Hand-washing facilities that are close by are essential. Another point to consider: Water used to wash the produce needs to be clean.

As for cantaloupes, which grow on the ground, toss any that have cuts, gashes, bad spots, or mold on them. Again, these blemishes offer pathogens a way to get inside the melons. “Rocky Ford” cantaloupes from Colorado, which likely became contaminated in the packing facility, sickened at least 146 people in 28 states in 2011. In addition, 33 deaths and one miscarriage were linked to the cantaloupe. Ten additional deaths were possibly related to the outbreak.

Potatoes are another crop that needs some attention. Sometimes we get donations of bags of potatoes with green skin. Believe it or not, peeling the green skin off the potato doesn’t solve the problem. Greening is actually a potato’s way of defending itself when it’s dug out of the soil and exposed to light. When that happens, the potato will produce bitter toxins to discourage animals from eating it. The poisonous ingredient of concern in these toxins is Solanine, which can be very toxic to humans even in small amounts. It’s inside the potato as well as on the outside.

Eating the occasional green potato is fine, according to molecular plant scientist N. Richard Knowles at Washington State University, who has done research on this. But eating a lot of them or eating them on a daily basis can make a person sick, sometimes very sick.

This greening typically occurs on the potatoes along the edges of the bags where the sun has hit them. Sometimes this adds up to a lot of green potatoes. In many stores, the typical protocol is to toss them. So, if for some reason the potatoes you’ve grown have been exposed to the sun or too much light, causing them to turn green, please don’t donate them to a food bank. It isn’t worth the risk of making people sick.

If, however, just some of the potatoes in a bag are green, we can always separate them out. We wouldn’t want to forego donations of this popular vegetable.

This attention to food safety isn’t new to any of you who sell to stores, restaurants, or schools. These customers already demand that you follow strict food-safety procedures. Some farmers markets also make similar demands of their farmers.

As for the “small-farm exemption” in the Food Safety Modernization Act, a farmer, no matter what size the farm, isn’t exempt from being responsible for providing safe food for people.

But my grandparents never got sick

When people are told about foodborne illnesses, they often think back to their grandparents, who drank raw (unpasteurized) milk and ate crops such as lettuces and carrots without washing them first. Both often came into direct contact with manure, which in those days was liberally spread in many family gardens.

But scientists warn that some of the pathogens of yesterday have mutated to become extremely virulent today. In the case of E. coli, for example, it takes far fewer of these microscopic bacteria to infect and sicken a person than it did in years past. It’s a new day, and as much as we would rather not have to deal with this, we can’t afford not to.

On another note, I often hear people say that things are “just too sanitary nowadays” and that city and suburban folk haven’t built up any immunity to germs. While that may very well be true, I think it’s important for farmers to realize that they’re actually talking about their customers. If it is true that their immune systems are weaker than those of people in earlier days, it’s also true that anyone who’s selling or giving them food needs to keep that in mind. You don’t want to ignore the realities of your customer base, and that’s especially true when you sell or donate food to food banks.

A thumbs-up to local farms from our food-bank director

Michael Frazier, executive director of the Helping Hands Food Bank, is enthusiastic about the ties the food bank shares with local farms.

“Fresh local food from small farms has the potential to help nourish food-bank clients, as well as provide additional income for farmers,” said Frazier, who has a degree in nutrition. “Whether it’s donated or bought, food from local farms can be a healthy resource for everyone involved. With this said, care with a food-safety lens from farm to table to provide safe food and good nutrition is the end result and very important.”