Continuing Safe Service

Three smiling women.
From left are Mary Reed, Head Start nutrition specialist, and Iris Wright and Betty Venson, Head Start chefs.

Head Start staff completes training to ensure safe, healthy foods

Story by Leah Barbour • Photos by Kevin Hudson

Washington County Opportunities Inc. Head Start/Early Head Start was forced to stop in-person services for much of 2020 because of the pandemic, but that did not stop its staff from feeding the children who are registered in the program.

The food was transported to students by bus, not in the cafeteria, so the kitchen staff needed to ensure that hot foods stayed hot and cold foods stayed cold during the journey. Overseeing it all was Mary Reed, longtime nutrition specialist at Washington County Opportunities Inc.

Knowing her team of chefs needed up-to-date, reliable information on best practices in food safety, Reed turned to a trusted partner: the Mississippi State University Extension Service.

Extension offers ServSafe, a 16-hour food safety course that certifies childcare and food-service employees in proper cleaning and sterilization, as well as risks and causes of foodborne illness. Proper temperatures and techniques for monitoring temperature are also part of the curriculum.

“With the pandemic, we couldn’t go in, sit for 2 days, and take the test, but the Extension Service found a way to keep certifications going so we could keep our food going out safely,” Reed remembers. “Making the class virtual has been a blessing, a godsend, because we never had to stop service. We kept things moving, took care of our business, and stayed in compliance.”

Local Extension agent Jennifer Russell continued working during the pandemic; even when Mississippi offices closed, she still offered remote and digital services. When offices reopened, Russell was ready to follow guidelines and ensure safe interactions with her clients.

“As an Extension agent, I didn’t want to let down clients and organizations, such as Washington County Opportunities Inc., which we have worked with for more years than I can remember,” Russell says. “They needed us to come through at a time when it seemed no one was willing to take a risk.”

Russell found a way to offer personalized instruction that still met safety recommendations, including hosting fewer than 10 people inside. To ensure the staff could ask questions, Russell reserved a day for the Head Start group to come to the office and view the videos there. Participants, spaced out across the room, wore masks.

“The training was different,” says Betty Venson, a Head Start chef who completed the training. “When I first did it (before the pandemic), we had a teacher over 2 days. But this way, the new way, we watched all the films and took the test online. It was different, and the changes made things safer. I’m a breast cancer survivor, and it was A-OK to do it the way they did. Extension adapted, and it worked.”

Iris Wright, another of the Head Start chefs, says she was glad to learn trustworthy, current food safety information.

“You have a responsibility when it comes to feeding these kids—making sure everything goes out right, getting the kids their food at the right temperature, and making sure everything is sanitized and clean,” she asserts. “The way we’re serving has changed a whole lot, but we’re still getting it to them at the right temperatures and safe.”

Extension has been a reliable partner for a long time, Reed says.

“Their door has always been open,” she recalls. “They’re so approachable. I can call and ask anything—they can even tell me who needs the certification; they come out and speak to the parents; they hand out literature with recipes. Whatever we ask for, they go above and beyond the call. Extension is a business, but it feels like family.”

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