Instead of posing the eternal question to Thanksgiving Day cooks – “When do we eat?” – some local eighth-grade students are equipped with a more technical line of inquiry this week.
What temperature was that heated to?
How did you defrost it?
How long has this been sitting at room temperature?
Their families can thank Shawna Russell for the vigilance in the kitchen. The Woodland Middle School teacher in Coeur d’Alene received special training in food science and safety over the summer, and now she’s sharing that knowledge with students in her “Young Living” classes.
This is the perfect season to think about foodborne illness and basic precautions, Russell said. The day before Thanksgiving is when many cooks, in a rush to thaw the turkey, mistakenly leave birds sitting out for hours and hours, she said.
“People think it is OK to leave meat on the counter to thaw, when it is a breeding ground for bacteria,” she said.
On Tuesday, Russell’s students put on latex gloves and goggles to work with raw hamburger. They swabbed beef from the refrigerator and some that had sat out for a day, and then spread the samples onto petri dishes.
On Monday they’ll observe the difference in bacterial growth, fully expecting a more pronounced result from the meat that was left out. The classes performed a similar experiment recently on types of milk.
“I love to see their eyes light up when they understand what happens when food is left out,” Russell said.
She and Diane Haney from Post Falls Middle School were two of 40 U.S. teachers chosen to take part last July in a food science workshop conducted by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Science Teachers Association and Graduate School USA.
The one-week workshop in Washington, D.C., was tailored to middle and high school science teachers. Russell, whose background is in family and consumer science, said it was the best training in her 18 years of teaching.
“This conference was the link for me to have hands-on activities for the students so they could see exactly why food safety is so important,” she said.
Using the curriculum, Russell helps her students understand the journey food takes from farm to table, and the safe handling practices essential at each stage.
“Teaching food safety at this age can positively impact them both in their future workplace and at home,” she said.
Alex Henderson, 13, said he is sharing the lessons with his parents, including avoiding the danger zone for bacterial growth: between 40 degrees and 140 degrees.
“That will help me. I didn’t know that until this year,” Henderson said.
He said his mom doesn’t mind him bringing home such tips: “She’s fine with it. She likes it actually.”
Allison Hensley, also 13, is finding the lessons both fun and eye-opening.
“I didn’t know there were that many bacteria in our food,” she said. “It is kind of scary.”
Hensley said she feels more informed for helping prepare meals at home and possibly for working in a restaurant down the road, as many teens do.
“It will make me think more about what I do when I cook,” she said. “It’s going to help me a lot, later on.”
Part of Tuesday’s class discussion included why ground beef can contain far more bacteria than cuts of steak, and why it’s best to always order hamburger well-done.
Russell also touched on Thanksgiving leftovers and the danger of leaving food out too long.
“We want to make sure that we are storing that food so that bacteria can’t grow in that,” she told the class. “The best way, as soon as you are done eating at the table, is to package those in small containers and put them in the refrigerator before it gets to that 140-degree temperature.”
She also covered how long to keep leftovers in the fridge, advising students to toss them after three or four days to be on the safe side; to reheat leftovers to 160 degrees or higher; and to heat and stir in intervals in the microwave for even cooking.
The summer seminar also covered nutrition, food allergies, cosmetics safety and color additives. Teachers, for example, may show their students how to use the “nutrition facts” label to make better food choices.
“It was seven full days of training that gave me a wealth of knowledge to share with my students,” Russell said.
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