Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles and opinion columns we are publishing in recognition of Food Safety Education Month.

Looking back, food safety and sports went hand in hand throughout my entire life; I always fueled myself for optimal function and recovery, and foodborne illness was not a desired part of the equation. There were so many moments where my two passions overlapped before food safety would become a professional passion; meal prepping with my roommates for a busy week brought mini-lessons on cross-contamination and keeping things safe in the kitchen. Looking at the “inspection grade” a restaurant displayed on their window would often veer me away from a risky dining experience.

I never knew I would get to coach at a collegiate level, I never knew I would get to work for the only law firm in the nation with a practice focused exclusively on foodborne illness litigation, and never knew I would find a graduate program that embodied developing myself and others. I did however, know my values, my passions, and purpose and beliefs, which have always been to lead others with great enthusiasm and improvisation in life, taking on challenges and finding a way to protect others, and truly understand that justice can be served each day from the plates we serve up for ourselves and others.

Kelsey Mackin created this illustration as part of her master’s project at Chapman University. Used with the permission of Kelsey Mackin

Athletics and leadership remained my two most important communities during my undergraduate and graduate education; the ability to merge the two was something I never thought possible.

During the time of the romaine lettuce outbreak this past spring, I was a masters of art in leadership development candidate and had just completed my 200-page thesis. One of my peers nicknamed me “The Food Safety Coach,” being the assistant coach of the University’s DIII Women’s Lacrosse team while creating a food safety education program for NCAA student athletes. Freshman on the team were asking me if the Caesar salad in the dining hall was safe to eat. My cousin informed me that the family she nannies was at the hospital because the E. coli had entered into one of the boy’s blood stream.

Whether we choose to ignore it or not, food safety continues to be a growing issue. My graduate thesis was a product of my belief that student athletes have minds capable of awareness and bodies dependent on abandoning chance and serving our choice for a safer tomorrow.

Foodborne illness is common, costly, but most importantly, preventable. Like too many, I am a foodborne illness statistic. When I was a freshman in high school, I got Hepatitis A from eating contaminated restaurant food. My liver was inflamed for about 5 months  before doctors could tell me what was wrong instead of saying that I  “just had social anxiety and sports anxiety.” By June, my body had fought off Hepatitis A.

I hit rock bottom that spring semester, but I rose out of it 10 times stronger, with a tool belt that I would take with me to Chapman University. This is where I would become a captain and then assistant coach of an NCAA DIII sports team, work in a university Athletics Office, work for the leading foodborne illness litigation firm in the country, and pursue a master’s degree in developing leadership. People always talk about using their story to help others. I never imagined my biggest setback would allow me to do that. Hitting rock bottom from a foodborne illness helped me find my passion for personal growth, learning and helping others.

For me, college was the first time I was living away from my family. From a party of six, to a party of one, I got to write the grocery list.

But the college lifestyle isn’t best known for creating a healthy and safe eating environment. Playing with, living with, and coaching teammates has given me a glimpse into the common mistakes, attitudes and behaviors that student athletes make everyday with food safety.

From pizza that was left out overnight, to expired milk that “still smells fine,” there isn’t much a college student won’t eat. Combine a full class load, empty grocery budget, and the crunch time between practice and class, food safety is not going to get the top spot on the priority list. As a result, the college setting can be a hotbed for unsafe food handling practices and foodborne illness.

The problem is that most students don’t realize how easy basic food safety skills are to correct, learn and practice. What’s the true cost? Why should student athletes care? When a student athlete “calls in sick” they are not only missing a day of classes, they are missing practice, or the big game; impacting not only their grade in the classroom, but the success of their teammates on the field, court, track or pool.

Already conscious of nutrition and food choices, increased food safety knowledge in student athletes will benefit the health status and athletic performance of an entire team. By doing so, we can create a value of informed food safety awareness and knowledge, fostering a cultural shift toward a more healthy and aware future.

It doesn’t matter how good of choices a student athlete is making, if they can’t execute the preparation of them properly, or safely. What if we gave our student athletes the tools to prevent foodborne illness by teaching them how to practice proper food safety behavior?

Looking back to the start of my journey in the food safety field, I’d like to share three key learnings:

  1. You can’t assume. Not everyone’s parents cook as good as mine or have the nation’s best foodborne illness attorney as their best friends dad. But really, not everyone knows how or what when it comes to food safety.
  2. Education is key. It’s one thing that nobody can take away from you, and one thing that has shown me it will be a part of my life, and my life’s work, forever.
  3. The importance of purpose, and finding my purpose. As Kevin Cashman said, “Purpose is not a goal to be set. It is not something we create. It is not some ‘great idea’ we come up with. It is something we discover. Purpose is always there, and it’s waiting for us.”

My story as a foodborne illness statistic in high school gave way to a vital realization as a player in the undergraduate environment and the formula for finding a solution as a coach in grad school. This month — Food Safety Education Month — is a reminder of how the smallest of actions can have the biggest impact when it comes to food safety and the choices we make. So whether it’s reminding others to wash their hands until they’ve recited the alphabet, use separate cutting boards, pay attention to cooking temps and refrigerate food correctly—food safety comes first in order for a life of health and happiness.

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