New Jersey Ag News
Role of ag educator never ends ... (Editorial)
(April 5, 2016) On the topic of the public’s ignorance on where food comes from, the common stories of only brown cows giving chocolate milk and children believing their food is created in the backs of grocery stores are bound to come up.
Ignorance over what to do with food once it arrives home seems to be another educational challenge for the farming community.
When Baltimore County Extension food safety agent Dr. Shauna Henley heard from some frustrated farmers’ market vendors that a noticeable amount of customers were surprised to be told they needed to wash the produce before it’s eaten, and at times backed away from the sale, she got curious how widespread that mindset was and initiated a survey as part of a larger food safety project supported by the University of Maryland.
After conducting structured interviews with market vendors, Henley developed an online survey for market shoppers to get more data on customer buying habits and food safety awareness.
Among other subjects, the eight- to 10-minute survey asked respondents to detail the factors around washing or not washing food before eating it, gauge their understanding of appropriate storage and how they would best like to receive information on safe food handling from market vendors.
“Do you look for food safety recommendations at the farmers’ market?” posed one of the questions. “Do you know what produce to refrigerate?” asked another.
The survey closed April 2 and Henley said the data will be included in a formalized report anticipated for the fall.
In the meantime, Henley and other food safety specialists use farmer trainings for Good Agricultural Practices to help farmers teach customers proper washing practices without hurting their business.
“Now you need to be the educator,” she said. “Somewhere between buying and consuming, some customers are missing that mark.”
Farmers’ markets and roadside markets are a good place to educate.
For the most part, the student — eager locavores with an interest in preparing their own food — wants to make a connection with the grower and is willing to learn. And farmers are one of the most trusted sources.
In a recent study by the marketing agency Sullivan, Higdon & Sink, 60 percent of respondents said farmers were “very/somewhat trustworthy,” up 7 percent from 2012 and ranks second in the pack of the agency’s other options, behind friends and family but ahead of the USDA, Food and Drug Administration and the academic community.
Learning how to make that connection so market shoppers receive and use the best information and return often to purchase products will be invaluable for farmers and food vendors.
Working in the food safety realm, Henley said she’s not entirely surprised by the lack of understanding about safe food practices.
Some of the things she’s heard of how people treat their food when they get home — rinsing kale in a clothes washer, for instance — shocks her.
We are not shocked either that the washing guidelines are not strictly followed by all, but we share the concern with market vendors over the notion that some market shoppers would sooner turn away from buying items after hearing they should be washed.
The Food and Drug Administration urges raw produce be washed before it’s eaten no matter where it’s bought or how it’s grown.
Farmers who educate shoppers on safe practices aren’t admitting their products are dirty or unsafe, they’re being responsible to their customers. And as the Food Safety Modernization Act’s implementation progresses, the most sweeping reform of American food safety laws in more than 70 years, more pressure will be on farmers to lower the risk of illness from their food.
Customers, whether they know it or not, share in that responsibility too.