Food safety education for small producers will take on an interactive gaming form with the help of a collaborative $550,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Kristen Gibson, department of food science professor of food safety for the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station and director of the Center for Food Safety, will serve as lead investigator on this grant.
The grant is aimed at providing easy-to-access educational resources about safe food production directed at small- and medium-size farmers getting started with their market endeavors.
Citing research that indicates interactive multimedia learning tools can help audiences understand concepts better than traditional education practices can, Gibson said the research team decided a multimedia game format may help producers retain the information better. The multi-institution project is titled "GLEAN (game learning to educate and advance knowledge): Transformative food safety training for farmers market vendors."
"We want to be sure that they're providing safe food to their customers," Gibson said. "And so, in order to implement best practices related to the production and the handling of fresh produce, you have to have that knowledge base to understand why that is important."
The Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station is the research arm of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
FARMERS MARKETS AND FOOD SAFETY
Farmers market vendors do not sell a large volume of produce, and therefore are not covered by the Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act, Gibson said. Food safety requirements may vary in each market, even within the same state, because farmers market managers can set their own regulations.
Farmers market vendors have varying levels of food safety knowledge and training, Gibson said. Additionally, farmers market managers may not have access to farmers market-specific training that can be distributed to the local producers.
The Arkansas Department of Health does not require farmers markets vendors to obtain permits to sell uncut fruit and vegetables or temperature-stable cottage foods.
The researchers want to be sure that everyone has access to resources to aid in the adoption of food safety best practices, and to make it easier to receive them.
"The idea is to be sure you're capturing those people who may be falling through the cracks," Gibson said.
The development of this food safety training game will take place over three years. The researchers will collect data from a sample of local food producers to understand what information is most relevant, assess the effectiveness of the game in knowledge retention and eventually release it to the public.
Vendors can find multiple answers to their questions on different media, like Google searches or YouTube, and by directing the necessary information into a game format, it may help growers feel confident in the validity of the information they consume, Gibson said.
They want the game to be realistic to the growers' specific situations so that food safety awareness can transfer into their practices. The game will include different risks and related regulations, allow the producers to get help from in-game organizations that mirror real-life support structures and allow them to understand the varying rules of different markets, Gibson said. The strategies will also center on how to gain entry to local and regional food systems.
Jennifer Acuff, assistant professor of food safety and microbiology at the experiment station, will also participate in the project.
"I am very excited to work on the GLEAN project," Acuff said. "With farmers markets continuing to grow in size and types of products sold, we want to make sure all the vendors are provided with as much knowledge as possible about relevant regulations and are empowered to employ best practices to prioritize the safety of their consumers."
Acuff's research focuses on reducing pathogens from foods at the post-harvest level through prevention and intervention. She received a $200,000 grant earlier this year from USDA-NIFA to investigate moisture levels that lead to bacterial survival in low-moisture foods.
"We will be collaborating with colleagues from around the nation to address local and regional knowledge gaps by employing creative learning tools, such as educational gaming," Acuff said.
That nationwide team of researchers includes Barbara Chamberlin, Matheus Cezarotto and Pamela Martinez from New Mexico State University, and Sujata Sirsat from the University of Houston. New Mexico State University will develop the game through its Learning Games Lab, which has developed many educational games.
Gibson has received many grants that feed into her work on food safety knowledge. Many of her projects aim to characterize food safety risks for small producers. Earlier this year, she characterized the pathogen vulnerability of two popular microgreen varieties and their growing media.
She was also recently awarded a $27,739 grant from the Center for Produce Safety to evaluate current food safety knowledge for indoor leafy green production, with the goal of presenting evidence-based best practices and identifying knowledge gaps on microbial risks.
Gibson is excited to use a game approach to relay food safety information. She hopes to see an increase in confidence, knowledge and the implementation of best practices outside the game.
"To do the practice, you have to have the knowledge first," Gibson said.
To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: https://aaes.uada.edu. Follow the agency on Twitter at @ArkAgResearch.
Brittaney Mann is with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.