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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Return of the potluck: Experts remind about safety as people begin to share food again in group gatherings

UPDATED: Fri., July 23, 2021

Sharing produce from their garden, members in a Spokane cohousing group met over a June 24 potluck for the first time since the pandemic began. With picnic tables and chairs in a circle, about 20 people visited while eating. The outdoor setting included nice weather, freshly mowed grass, flower beds and a pond.

People were comfortable planning a potluck after COVID-19 vaccinations, an organizer said. The group was among a total of 65 adults and about a dozen children to occupy Haystack Heights in the Perry District by year’s end, though some live onsite as units are being built. The group’s planning has had to be virtual.

“The potluck was a stress relief because building a cohousing community is a lot of work,” said Mariah McKay, project co-founder. “People have had a lot of nerves over the pandemic, and doing all this stuff by Zoom has frayed nerves.”

With about 56% of the eligible U.S. population having received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose and people more comfortable gathering in person, there’s a slow return to the summer tradition of potlucks and barbecues by churches, clubs, organizations and friends.

The Spokane cohousing group includes families, singles, empty nesters and seniors seeking a village-like setting for residents to interact. Residents plan the project with a mix of private living units and common areas, including space to eat meals together and share in projects.

Meeting for the recent potluck after so many months was good for mental health and morale, McKay said. “It just reminded us why we’re doing this. Gatherings like that won’t be a special occasion; it will be a part of our everyday lives that contributes to the quality of our life.”

It also gave them time to talk about anxieties such as recent instability in the electrical grid and seeing some disruptions in the supply chain for groceries, she said.

“By reconnecting again over food, we realize other people are concerned, taking action and trying to support one another. It lowers your blood pressure, I really believe that, to feel less alone.”

As people connect potluck-style after more than a year absent from gatherings of any kind, it’s also good to recall the basics of food safety, experts say. Potential culprits are food poisoning or allergies, but you’re not likely to catch COVID-19 by touching the same serving spoon or the food itself, according to state and federal agencies.

Organizers should consider having conversations with invited members before a potluck about comfort levels and any ground rules, said Lisa Breen, Spokane Regional Health District’s food safety program manager.

“With more people being fully vaccinated in the community and larger numbers of individuals being qualified to get vaccinated, there is the potential that we have better immunity as a community than we had before,” Breen said.

“That said, we do still have the (COVID) variants of concern still causing illness, so it’s still out there. If you’re going to do a potluck, you need to take into consideration for things like who are you inviting, are you inviting a primarily vulnerable population, are you concerned about potential exposure and maybe some people didn’t have a vaccine because of a health condition, and are you going to have a wide variety of age groups present?”

Perhaps everyone invited has been vaccinated, but consider that some might prefer to wear a mask for personal reasons. “Part of that conversation is to make everyone comfortable,” Breen said.

“If someone, even if vaccinated, wants to wear a face covering perhaps because they have vulnerable people at home, I’d encourage them to make it so they’re comfortable.”

Other tweaks to potlucks depend more on personal preferences or to reduce the spread of germs generally – such as individual drink containers versus a dispenser or a volunteer to serve the food.

“In general, COVID isn’t known to be spread through food or food packaging,” said Meredith Carothers, a food safety expert at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As trends indicate more gatherings are occurring, it doesn’t hurt to recall tips to reduce foodborne illnesses, she said.

The tips include remembering to wash hands and reduce touch points if you can, Carothers said. Avoid the danger zone – between 40 and 140 degrees – a range where bacteria likes to thrive and can make you sick.

She said an easy reminder is to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Use a two-hour or one-hour rule of when to store, chill or reheat food set out for a potluck or barbecue. It goes to the one-hour rule outside if the weather is above 90 degrees – like Spokane’s trend lately.

“Follow the two-hour or one-hour rule, or then bacteria can multiply to those dangerous levels if food is left out – inside or outside – more than two hours or one hour if it’s hot outside.

“If you want to keep food out for longer, either keep it hot on the grill low at above 140 degrees, or if it’s something like dips, keep them cold in a cooler.”

Breen said potluck organizers can ask ahead about any health concerns among people invited. “I would encourage an outdoor potluck rather than indoors, going over the rules with everybody, and then the barbecue food safety piece is still going to be there.

“If you don’t feel well, please don’t come. That actually applies also that if you don’t feel well, please don’t make food you’ll be bringing. And while COVID-19 has not been associated with exposure through food, you can get foodborne illnesses when foods are out at room temperature.”

While you’re eager to catch up after long absences, don’t let foodborne illness crash the party, Carothers added. “It’s great that people are getting back outside and getting together. Just remember that food safety has to be a member of the potluck, too.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on July 23, 2021 to correct the spelling of the name of the cohousing community mentioned. 

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