Innovation on Campus: Evolving Food Safety Training for Student Organizations

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By Travelers
3 minutes
Students serving food on campus.

Before her risk management career began, Susie Johnson worked in student-alumni affairs at Iowa State University, a sprawling campus that’s home to 36,000 students and more than 900 student groups. At an on-campus event, one of her student groups served chicken, and Johnson recalls worrying about whether it was properly cooked.

Fortunately, there was never a significant food handling issue. But years later, Johnson remembered the event and the potential for a widespread food-borne illness. Now, as the university’s risk management director, Johnson has developed an online training program designed to help ensure that students know how to reduce the chance of food spoilage and contamination, while also complying with local food service regulations.

“Student organizations are a key part of our brand,” Johnson explains. “They’re active in so many ways, with theme weeks and traditions throughout the year celebrating their colleges. They take great pride in cooking for these events, from grilling burgers to making ice cream. They have great intentions, but it could just take one bad event for it to be a significant problem.”

The initial training was an in-person, 90-minute class that tested student attention spans and proved difficult to scale for the size of the student body. Johnson worked with dietary and food specialists at Iowa State University’s Extension and Outreach division to create a series of online modules covering topics ranging from using gloves to having handwashing stations.

Accessible to Everyone

One of the keys to the success of this program was recognizing the importance of developing a curriculum that would resonate with students in the way they prefer to learn. As a result, thousands of students complete the training every year. It can be accessed by students, faculty advisors, community members, college students and anyone else who might be serving food on campus.

“We asked how we could get them information that meets them where they are and is ready when they are,” Johnson explained. “The curriculum is on-demand and online, so they can do it at 11:30 at night if that’s when they have time.” Students take a quiz at the end and must visit the student activities center in person for a card to show that they passed. “It has been effective,” Johnson said.

Creating a Student-Centered Program

In her role as Director of Risk Management, Johnson oversees the risk and insurance needs for the university, where she finds herself constantly looking to appropriately manage risk across campus and beyond, from student organization events to international travel for students and employees.

For risk managers considering online training, she has several tips for developing a student-centered program.

  1. Practice user-centered design. “We need to be in touch with the population the training is targeting, including running focus groups and surveys to see what’s important to them,” Johnson said. Students at Iowa State can see the connection between wanting to have a safe and successful event and getting the important information from accessible training.
  2. Don’t wait for perfect. “One of the things that’s been important is not to wait for it to be just right,” Johnson said of the training. The risks of delaying the training were compelling enough to launch the first generation of the online training program. “Get something out there that you can continuously improve upon, rather than waiting for it to be perfect from the start.”
  3. Recognize emerging risks. The emergence of additional food sensitivities makes the risks of a food safety incident even greater now compared to years ago when Johnson first joined the university. Conducting sessions where you evaluate your potential risk scenarios can help you identify areas where additional safety training can help prevent unfortunate incidents.

Johnson is also always looking for efficiencies and ways to streamline processes, which, she says, reflects student expectations of being able to self-serve to get the information they need. As she prepares to update the next generation of training materials, she’ll be looking for new technologies and other ways to do that.

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