Environmental and health advocates are increasingly promoting food donations to reduce landfilled food waste and feed hungry people. Share tables are locations where students can put unwanted school food or beverage items, allowing their uneaten food items to be “shared” with other students and providing food donation opportunities for the 4.9 billion lunches served annually in the U.S. National School Lunch Program. The purpose of this qualitative study was to identify differences in health inspector interpretations of the Food Code as it relates to share table operations and risk mitigation techniques preferred by inspectors for preventing foodborne illness from recovered food. A snowball sampling technique was used to identify Illinois health inspectors (n = 13) engaged in share table inspections. Telephone interviews were audio recorded and transcribed verbatim. The transcripts were coded using a hybrid process of deductive and inductive content analysis. Participants considered contamination, rather than temperature abuse, to be the primary risk factor for foodborne illness. Those participants with permissive Food Code interpretations considered contamination risk in the context of the overall school environment. Participants had the lowest degree of consensus on whether to allow whole apple recovery via a share table. Participants also lacked consensus on reuse of unclaimed share table items in future meal programs (reservice). This lack of consensus indicates that further research is needed to develop data-driven strategies to assess and manage the microbial risks associated with share tables and ultimately to facilitate increased food recovery.

  • Hand cross-contamination at share tables was the main risk factor for foodborne illness.

  • Those who considered the school context had more permissive Food Code interpretations.

  • Participants had the lowest consensus on whole apple recovery.

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