What You Should Know Before Volunteering to Serve Food During the Holidays

Nov 24, 2015

If you’re thinking of volunteering this Thanksgiving holiday, you might have an image in mind of doling out piping hot spoonfuls of mashed potatoes and green beans. But up until recently, city code required all volunteers to be certified to do so.

A recent change in state law prompted the city to reevaluate its food-handling policy. So in October, the City Council approved a slew of mostly minor changes — including removing the word “volunteers” from its definition of “food handlers.”

Vince DeLisi, with Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services, says many local non-profits support removing volunteers from the list of those required to get food handlers’ certification – it’s often too much of a burden for them to get certified, especially when some people volunteer only once a year. But then comes the issue of ensuring that food is handled and prepared safely.

The federal government passed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act in 1996, and it protects those who donate food "in good faith" from being prosecuted if someone gets sick from that food. Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman said of the law in 1998, “The fear of getting sued is no longer the problem that it used to be...We live in the most agriculturally abundant nation on Earth. There is simply no excuse for hunger in this country, especially when we let up to one-third of our food supply go to waste every year."

Texas actually passed a similar law more than a decade earlier, but some non-profits still don't take the risk and require volunteers to become certified food handlers.

“It sounds very ominous when you say that, but it’s only a two-hour online interactive course.” says Bill Fry with Keep Austin Fed, an organization that does ask all volunteers to be certified.

Either way, City staff say non-profits should still have a certified food manager overseeing things to make sure food gets handled safely this holiday season.

You'll see the city's more detailed guidelines below.

Want to learn more about food handlers' certification? You can contact the Certified Food Managers Program at 512-834-6727, or visit this website.