Extension food safety experts share ways to protect your family, community during COVID‑19

A grocery employee stands in front of several near-empty shelves.
The WSU Extension Food Safety and Nutrition Program fact sheets and resources on COVID‑19 include safe grocery shopping strategies.

As communities nationwide accept the ongoing reality of social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, people still need to shop for groceries, plan meals, and feed their families.

To help Northwest residents make informed choices to protect themselves and others, a team of educators with Washington State University Extension have put together a set of COVID-19 related food-focused tip sheets, podcasts and videos. These and many other food-related COVID-19 resources are available on the WSU Extension Consumer Food Safety website.

“We noticed a gap between what is currently known about preventing the spread of COVID-19, and the food-related consumer behaviors we were observing in the media and in our communities,” said Zena Edwards, Food Safety & Nutrition Educator with WSU Clark and Cowlitz County Extension.

Although specific social distancing restrictions and recommendations have shifted over time, what is known about how the virus spreads has remained fairly consistent—person to person contact via respiratory droplets. Edwards and her colleagues stressed the need for continued social distancing, staying home as much as possible, using a cloth face cover when around others, good hand hygiene, and proper cleaning and disinfecting of frequently touched surfaces.

“This has been a stressful time for many people,” said Susie Craig, WSU Extension Area Food Safety Specialist. “We hope we can help alleviate some of that anxiety by providing resources that help people focus on the most important risk reduction practices for grocery shopping, meal planning, food storage, cleaning and sanitizing.

It is important to know the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting and how to use products, said Lizann Powers-Hammond, WSU Extension Food and Nutrition Educator in Benton and Franklin Counties.

“Many people are surprised to know that disinfectants are regulated by the EPA because they are pesticides,” she said. “They may be more harmful than helpful if not used correctly.”

The CDC has noted a substantial increase in reports related to cleaner and disinfectant poisoning since March 2020 compared to previous years.  Almost half of the calls were associated with children under five years of age. The largest increase was seen for bleaches, non-alcohol disinfectants, and hand sanitizers.

People should also be somewhat reassured if they cannot get hand sanitizer.

“The CDC recommendation is not to wash and sanitize hands, just wash or sanitize,” Powers-Hammond said. “Proper hand washing will destroy the virus. Hand sanitizer is only a back-up when hand washing is truly not possible.”

The educators also emphasize that this pandemic is an opportunity to establish healthy habits that will outlast COVID-19.

“Washing your reusable grocery bags, good hand washing, safe food storage and meal planning are core health practices we promote every day in our Extension food and nutrition programs,” said Margaret Viebrock, Food Safety & Nutrition Educator for WSU Extension Chelan and Douglas counties.

Drawn from FEMA, CDC, USDA, and emerging research, the WSU Extension Food Safety and Nutrition Program fact sheets and resources on COVID include:

Among their recommendations, educators suggest that people should seriously consider if a trip to the grocery store is necessary.

“Often you can be creative and make use of what you already have on hand,” Viebrock said.

Educators also shared sample two-week menus for a family of four, complete with shopping lists, pantry staples list and recipes. The menus can be used by anyone wanting to follow a healthy eating plan on a modest budget.

If you do go shopping, limit your trips to reduce the risk of contact. Use a shopping list, and focus on your hands when entering and leaving the store. Start and finish with hand washing. If you can’t wash your hands, use hand sanitizer on your hands and cart handles, and sanitize your hands when you leave the store.

“These recommendations won’t guarantee illness will be prevented, but they may help slow the spread of COVID-19,” Craig said.

Media contact:

  • Margaret Viebrock, food safety & nutrition professor, WSU Extension Chelan & Douglas Counties, 509-745-8531, viebrock@wsu.edu

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