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New Cartoon-Based Food Defense Training Program To Start In Franklin, Then Go National

Michele Samarya-Timm

Somerset County Health Department educator Michéle Samarya-Timm led the team which developed a cartoon-based training program for food defense.

Franklin Township is the launching ground for a new training tool to educate food service workers about food defense.

The tool is a set of cartoons used to illustrate what food service workers should do in four common scenarios: Being presented with an unknown food source, dealing with symptoms of illness, preventing employee contamination of food and dealing with suspicious people.

Created by a team led by Michéle Samarya-Timm, a health educator with the Somerset County Department of Health, the program was funded by an approximately $100,000 grant from the federal Food and Drug Administration.

Three years in the making, the program, entitled “Keep Food and People Safe,” is ready to be rolled out to the township’s approximately 300 food service establishments, Samarya-Timm said.

The county health department also serves as the township’s health department.

And once the program’s Web site is finished and online, the package will be made available nationwide, she said.

The program focuses on food defense, which is different than food safety, Samarya-Timm said.

While food safety is mainly concerned with protecting our food supply free from accidental contamination, she said, food defense is geared toward protecting it from intentional contamination.

“Things like keeping you from doing something to the food because you have a grudge, or because you want to make a political statement,” she said.

Federal efforts at food defense education have been mainly geared to the manufacturing level, she said. This program, she said, is aimed at the “retail level.”

The goal of the program, she said, is to answer the question, “How do we make this go in such a way that the people who are the last one to handle your food before you eat it can best protect it?”

Samarya-Timm said the idea to base the educational program on cartoons didn’t come around until the team was about a year into its development.

“The original idea was ‘just-in-time’ training,” she said. Just-in-time training is a learning tool used for quick training on a specific topic.

The materials accompanying food safety and defense educational programs created by the federal government tend to be word-dense packages that are quickly forgotten, if they’re learned at all, she said.

SomCo Health Department Food Defense2

The cartoons depict four scenarios with which food service workers may be presented.

The cartoons can solve that problem, she said, as well as the problem of workers for whom English is a second language or who may have sub-standard literacy skills.

“I believe that education needs to be entertaining, it needs to be short and it needs to be done in different ways,” Samarya-Timm said. “If you can make it fun, engaging and make it work well with materials, people will remember it.”

Samarya-Timm said the group was fortunate to find a cartoonist who did the work for no fee.

She said they were about to go out to bid for cartoonists when this person – who wishes to remain anonymous – offered to do the art.

Each scenario is drawn on one sheet holding six panels. Samarya-Timm said that when she is training with the materials, she reveals one panel at a time and asks people what they would do next.

The sets depict workers handling each one of the four scenarios.

The material will be left behind after the training, she said.

The cartoons have been translated from English into nine other languages, she said.

Test training sessions have been run in several township establishments, she said, and the reaction has been “phenomenal.”

“People are asking us if we can do more scenarios and translate it into more languages,” she said.

The program also won the “Outstanding Health Materials” award in December 2013 from the New Jersey Society for Public Health Education, Samarya-Timm said.

She said she would probably be spending the better part of this year making the rounds of the township’s hundreds of food service establishments, dropping off the materials and running training sessions with them. She said she’d be aided in that by the five township health inspectors and others, if needed.

“Will it make a difference?” she asked. “I hope.”

Samarya-Timm said she hoped the program encourages workers to call police or the health department for things they may have otherwise ignored.

“I’d rather folks called us for something we did not need to know than hesitate on something we did need to know,” she said.

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