People often get very excited when they hear how we eat meals together to build authentic community. This biblical practice is not only really effective, it's really easy to do. Just tell people bring food and set up tables for the food and for eating, right? Simplest plan ever to build relationships in your church.
But without a little additional planning, you run the risk of spreading food-borne illness through bacteria and viruses, which in extreme cases literally kills people.
Here's what I've learned about food safety (largely through being a consultant for Chick-fil-A):
Avoid Room Temperature
Nationally required food safety courses talk about the “temperature danger zone” where bacteria and viruses thrive. It just happens to be room temperature. Specifically, restaurants are required to keep food either below 40 or above 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Food that sits for 4 hours or more in the temperature danger zone can’t be served anymore (restaurants are supposed to throw it away).
Use Food Servers
Station volunteers behind the tables full of food and only allow these food servers to dish out food to the plates the others hold. If someone shows up with germs on their hands (maybe their already sick and don’t know it), this will save everyone who comes in line after them. And it’s a great way to serve people and make them feel special.
Wash, Wash, Wash
Food Servers should wash their hands AND use hand sanitizer--maybe multiple times while serving. Of course, they should wash before serving. But if they touch their hair, their mouth, the floor, or even shake hands with someone else, they need to wash again before serving. You might be surprised how much illness can be avoided by simply washing your hands frequently.
Don’t Underestimate Hand Sanitizer
In the same vein as above, place a lot of hand sanitizer pumps around the room and encourage everyone, not just the food servers, to clean their hands.
Announce Allergy-Risky Ingredients
Even when general food safety standards are met, food allergies can pose serious risks for those who have them. Either make an announcement and/or put a simple signs up to identify food that has things like nuts, gluten, etc. If necessary, you can have a volunteer ask people when they drop off the food what allergy risks they may have (a simple allergy checklist helps with this).
I don't make a big deal about bacteria, etc. Most of us violate food safety standards in our home kitchens on a daily basis. Fear is not our goal and the risk of death is only real for those who are already seriously ill or severely allergic. Otherwise it just looks like a 24 hour sickness. If asked, I’ll mention safety briefly, then I’ll explain how following these guidelines is also a great way to make people feel served (food table servers) and make the food taste better (keep it hot or cold).