Food Safety in Food Pantries and Soup Kitchens

The Biblical directive to feed the hungry is exquisitely clear and straightforward, but the 21st century implementation is a little more complex!

Many parishes and church organizations run soup kitchens or food pantries as part of their social outreach commitment. Most are staffed by dedicated volunteers. All must adhere to local health regulations, while they provide nutritious food and a gracious welcome for their guests.

Meal and grocery distribution programs should follow food safety guidelines. Some are common sense, of course, but others are easily overlooked where there is a changing cast of well-meaning helpers.

Preventing Food-borne Illnesses

Food-borne illnesses are commonly caused by bacteria and characterized by upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, fever or cramps. People who are elderly, malnourished, or have underlying health problems are most vulnerable. Fortunately, bacterial illnesses are easy to prevent.

The bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses are hard to spot, because they don’t generally make food look, taste or smell bad. They grow rapidly in temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit in high-protein foods, milk, dairy products, meat, fish and poultry, and when moisture is present. 

Also, they are easily spread through inadvertent cross-contamination, as when a person handles raw meat and then another food without washing the cutting board, or their hands in between. 

Please carefully review the list below for ways to prevent the growth of bacteria, and the resulting illnesses:

Store food properly  

  • Clean and sanitize surfaces before food arrives. Make sure there is space in freezers, fridges and pantry. 
  • Frozen foods must be received frozen and maintained in a freezer at 0-10 degrees Fahrenheit until they are cooked. Reject thawed or thawing items.
  • Refrigerated foods must be received and stored below 40 degreesFahrenheit. Take and record the temperature.
  • Do not wash produce before storing. The added moisture supports bacterial growth.
  • Know which fruits and vegetables can be stored at room temperature and which must be refrigerated. 
  • Keep raw meat, poultry or fish on a tray on the lowest shelf of the refrigerator and away from fresh produce. 
  • Grains and canned goods must be inspected for rips, tears, dents, rust and swelling. Reject or discard anything that shows damage or mold. Store at 70-85 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • When in doubt, throw out or compost questionable food.
  • Receive and store all foods in their original packaging, including a label of the contents.
  • Date all items, whether frozen, refrigerated or shelved. Rotate food regularly, with the ‘first in-first out’ method. Maintain daily temperature logs.
  • If produce is repackaged for food pantry distribution, use clean food boxes, storage bags or plastic wrap. Leave the opening loose to avoid trapping moisture.
  • Use only non-toxic insect and rodent traps, if needed. Do not spray chemicals or lay poison in a food storage area.
  • Understand the distinctions “Best if used by”, “Sell by” and “Expiration date”. Use good judgment. Most foods are safe to eat well after the “Best if use by” and “Sell by” dates, although they may not be as tasty. Baby food and infant formula are the most common pantry items with expiration dates. It is illegal in many places to distribute baby food or formula past its expiration date. 

Prepare food carefully

  • Workers must not prepare food at home for distribution at the soup kitchen. 
  • If cooked foods are accepted from a source outside the soup kitchen, the source must be a licensed restaurant or food preparation venue that adheres to the same health department standards as the soup kitchen. Containers must be intact and sealed. 
  • All workers must wear hats or hairnets, short-sleeved tops, aprons and gloves. 
  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water before beginning. Wash thoroughly again or change gloves after handling raw meat, fish or poultry or utensils.
  • Segregate raw and uncooked foods. Do not let the juices from raw meat, poultry or fish touch other foods, surfaces, utensils or serving plates. 
  • Do not store washed and unwashed foods together.
  • Keep all surfaces clean. Do not touch anything except the essential tools.
  • Do not touch face or hair when working with food. Cover sneezes and coughs; move away from the prep area; wash hands and change gloves before returning.
  • Keep hot foods hot throughout entire cooking and serving stages. Maintain the highest internal cooking temperature for at least 15 seconds. Hold hot foods above 135 degrees Fahrenheit. (Some local health departments require 160 degrees.) 
  • Do not allow cold food to become warm before serving or storing. Maintain cold foods below 39 degrees. 

Avoid cross-contamination

  • Use a different knife, spoon or tongs for each food or cooking vessel. 
  • Clean and sanitize cutting boards and counter space between tasks and when working with different foods. Use an industrial cleaning product or a mixture of bleach and water.
  • Do not reuse disposable containers, such as aluminum foil food pans. Recycle them instead.
  • Ask guests to report food allergies to the servers or director, so you can tell them if potential allergens are in any of the day’s offerings. 


  • Do not touch ready-to-eat food with bare hands. Wear gloves. 
  • Ladle and serve cooked and cold foods with their own dedicated utensils. 
  • Hand the guest’s tray from volunteer to volunteer along the serving line to prevent reaching and cross-contamination before delivering to the guest. 

Clean-up and storage

  • Plan menus carefully to reduce leftovers.
  • Check with the local health department to determine if you can offer carry-out meals for guests to take home. If so, do not pack them until the guest is ready to leave. 
  • Place hot food in small, shallow containers with loosened covers in the back of the refrigerator. Measure temperature every two hours to ensure food cools below 39 degrees within four hours. If it does not, either discard, or reheat and restart the cooling process. Cover securely and label. Use within two days.
  • Wrap or cover cold ready-to-eat food, such as cut fruit. Label, date and use within seven days. 
  • Dispose of leftover food without letting it touch fresh food or any part of the food prep area. 
  • Wash and sanitize dishes, pots, pans, utensils and all prep and cooking surfaces. Clean and sanitize the floor. 

Wisdom from the Field

The director of a thriving, long-established, weekly parish soup kitchen in central New York said her 300 volunteers work on 11 rotating teams. The team leaders have an annual safety briefing and then pass the reminders to their members. 

She said the toughest safety rules are the ones that seem counter-intuitive until they are explained. 

  • We’re working with hot food from a hot kitchen and we’re moving around. We serve all of our guests in 30 to 45 minutes. Sometimes it’s hard for volunteers to understand why we have to keep the Sternos lit from start to finish. The food cools faster than we realize.
  • Most of us are used to the idea of carrying a tray through a food line and choosing what we want. At first, it feels odd to hold onto and fill our guests’ trays on our side of the serving table while they walk along the other side and tell us what they’d like to have. But it’s really important to prevent contamination from sleeves and reaching hands.
  • Good-hearted volunteers saved and cleaned Cool Whip containers for us to use when serving carry-out meals, but the health department told us to purchase commercial segmented lidded containers, so we complied. 

© Bree Publishing 2015