Community meals are a great opportunity to share dishes, stories and, unfortunately, foodborne illnesses.

Community meals are a great opportunity to share dishes, stories and, unfortunately, foodborne illnesses.

As Delaware County residents continue to plan holiday-season meals, officials with the county's public health agency hope more people take advantage of free food-safety courses.

Shannon Self, a sanitarian with the Delaware General Health District, said the agency launched its food safety for volunteers program a little over a year ago. She said district is making a renewed push to market the program to groups that serve community meals, especially churches.

"We knew we had this group of people who volunteer their time to serve others and they're exempt from licensure ... so we don't get to go in there to inspect their facility unless they ask us to come in," she said.

The district will provide any church or other volunteer group that requests training with a one-hour session, offering tips on subjects ranging from hand-washing to proper food temperatures.

"When you're serving a group, you want to make sure everything gets cooked to the right temperature so that you're not serving them up some turkey that's going to give them salmonella down the road," Self said.

Salmonella is bacteria that people can ingest by eating undercooked meat or eggs. Salmonella-related infections can lead to cramps, diarrhea and, if a severe case goes untreated, death.

Self said members of some groups she's talked to in the past appreciated information on when hand-washing is necessary and how to handle food.

"When you're trying to feed a group, you want to make sure you have separation between your bare hands and the food after it's been cooked," she said.

The district's presentation also includes information on what internal temperatures cooked foods should reach and how they should be stored to avoid contamination.

While the district is making a special effort to market the program for the holiday season, Self said food-safety presentations by district staff are available all year.

"Any time we can reach them is a good time," she said.

Although the consequences of mishandling food can be scary, Self said she would never discourage local groups from serving dinners.

"There are thousands and thousands of meals that are served in Delaware County by volunteers every month and we have not really had any issues of people calling and telling us they've got sick from (a) group event," she said.

Instead, Self said, the goal of the district's program is to remind groups about the right way to cook and serve for a large group.

Group members interested in scheduling a presentation may call Self at 740-203-2071.