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Safety on the front lines: Serving food at the Carson Gully Center. Photo by Wolfgang Hoffmann BS'75 MS'79

When the managers of University Housing Dining and Culinary Services (DCS) decided a few years ago to go above and beyond state requirements in employee food safety certification, they turned to the CALS Department of Food Science for help.

The “ServSafe” certification program, produced by the National Restaurant Association, is offered nationwide. By Wisconsin state law, food service operations need at least one staff member to be certified.

But DCS has expanded that requirement as a matter of quality improvement. “We wanted to provide the people on our front lines more tools to help us assure food safety at all our service points,” says DCS associate director Julie Luke. “Over the last three to five years we’ve probably doubled the number of staff who have food safety training built into the credentials for their position.” Even for positions where certification is not required it is offered as a professional development option, notes Luke.

DCS has some 100 full-time classified staff preparing and serving an average of 95,000 food orders a week through residence halls, catering and other venues on campus, assisted by an army of 1,200 student workers.

Expanding training was and is a tall order—but DCS has an able partner in food science instructor and registered dietitian Monica Theis, who not only teaches the two-day certification class but also recruits her undergraduate dietetics students to serve as tutors. A number of food service employees have low literacy or English as a second language. For those groups both the instruction and certification exam can pose a challenge.

Dietetics junior Heang Lee Tan worked one-on-one with one such employee, helping her take notes, prepare notecards and take a practice exam.

“It was really eye-opening for me to see how hard it was to implement a food safety training program. I saw how literacy became such a challenge,” says Tan. “It makes me more sensitive to the great diversity of staff working in an organization. Having that knowledge will make me a better employee or manager in the future.”

Student tutors like Tan have boosted the success rate of DCS employees in passing the exam, notes Theis. “It’s been an amazing experience.”

Theis has involved undergrads in other food safety efforts. For example, Lori Homes BS’13 partnered with DCS and University Health Services to design an online food safety training module now used by DCS student workers, who formerly had to get that training in person. Homes also served as a student supervisor at DCS.

The food safety collaboration is one of many between DCS and food science. Theis trains DCS staff on a number of food-related topics, including allergies. DCS administration offers work opportunities to dietetics students interested in one day joining large-scale food and dining operations. Recently DCS executive chef Jeff Orr worked with food science students on a contest to create a new hamburger recipe for Gilly’s Frozen Custard restaurants.

Theis welcomes those collaborations. “We have opportunities right here to partner with campus units and contribute to our little community,” she says. “Our students can make a tremendous difference.”