County partners with nonprofits to ensure kitchen safety for mass food preparation

Published on June 08, 2017

When the temporary homeless shelter in North Auburn first opened in 2015, it lacked a kitchen. That presented a problem for the county’s environmental health staff: Without a space for mass meal preparation, how could they ensure food safety for shelter residents? Allowing kind-hearted donors to prepare such a large quantity of food in their own small home kitchens posed a host of risks, from salmonella to E. coli.

The solution was a program that creates partnerships with nonprofits and is having an impact far beyond the walls of the shelter.

“It’s just a matter of collaboration, communication and a little outreach,” said environmental health director Wesley Nicks. 

Nonprofits with commercial-grade kitchens are normally allowed to host just three large events involving food per year. Under the new program, county staff inspect kitchens; offer free food safety training to volunteers; and issue permits at no cost that are appropriate for the size and features of each kitchen. 

Nonprofits can then prepare food for charitable causes like the homeless shelter, host unlimited culinary events or, with a few more steps, become a full commercial kitchen and be able to rent out their facility to a caterer or other business.

The permitted kitchens can also be used in case of emergency. If large-scale shelters ever were to open due to flood, fire or other emergencies, groups like the Red Cross could immediately start using the kitchens with the peace of mind that they are in suitable condition. 

“It’s mutually beneficial,” Nicks said. “These are resources that we have at our disposal; we just need to make sure we can use them if we needed them.”

So far, 12 faith-based institutions and a handful of other groups - from veterans’ halls to the fairgrounds - have hopped onboard with the program. 

“The county was able to give us the kind of training we needed as a church,” said Steve Holm, community outreach director with the Auburn Seventh-Day Adventist Church. 

On a recent Monday afternoon, Holm joined some fellow parishioners and a handful of helpers from a local school as they prepared sloppy joes, green beans and salad for 100 shelter residents. They loaded up two vans, headed to the shelter and served the meals to residents. 

“I am very thankful for it,” said shelter resident Kebin Poulsen. “They do a lot of hours and put in a lot of work cooking my food.”

Church members now put their food safety knowledge to use in other events like pancake breakfasts. 

“We’re partners. The county is not here to shut us down. They’re here to make sure that we’re open, and we’re open in a safe way,” Holm said. “We’ve been incident-free.” 

Placer County nonprofit organizations with kitchens that would like to participate in the free program can call 530-745-2300.