ServSafe goes multilingual

Lauren Lee

ServSafe is a food and beverage safety training and certificate program administered by the National Restaurant Association. The program teaches comprehensive food safety and sanitation knowledge and procedures to food service professionals. It is offered by specialists in the nutrition and wellness program of Iowa State’s Human Sciences Extension and Outreach.

By law, every food establishment must have at least one manager with ServSafe certification. This includes foodservice within schools or assisted living centers, restaurants, food trucks, yogurt shops and any other type of food served to public. The total cost for the materials, review and exam is $150, which can be a hefty cost for smaller food establishments. However, it has been mandated that by 2018, all food establishments have at least one manager with the training and certification, thus creating higher demand for the class.

“Here in Iowa, one of the things we do for food safety is we partner with the Iowa Restaurant Association in teaching the food safe course, the ServSafe certification examination,” said Mary Krisco, field specialist for Human Sciences Extension and Outreach. “It’s a traditional role for state university to provide food safety and instruction education to the public.”

Lack of food safety or sanitation can have monumental consequences to businesses.

“It’s about preventing the contamination of food by viruses and bacteria,” Krisco said.

Small mistakes in food safety can expose people to harmful foodborne illnesses. The ServSafe program is designed to familiarize people with the food code, and what the laws are in food service. The program also trains food service workers on proper, safe food preparation and delivery procedures.

“The certification lasts up to five years, and being a federal requirement is valid across state lines,” Krisco said.

The main reason this certification is so important is that employees need to know the terminology and be able to refer to the food code when necessary. Recently, Krisco and others have been working to offer the ServSafe program in Spanish for native Spanish speakers.

“What we’re trying to do with Spanish-speaking people who work in the food industry is help them learn the material so they can pass the exam,” Krisco said. 

Many Hispanic food service workers speak English well enough for their job requirements, but struggle with reading and writing, which are not demanded daily for their line of work.

“It’s incredibly hard to take exams in a second language,” Krisco said. “In extension, we could see that Spanish-speaking people taking tests were just not doing very well. We decided that it might help passing rate if we offered it in Spanish.” 

The Iowa program does not have any specialists who are native Spanish speakers, but it is searching for qualified native speakers to fill that role with the proper training.

Teaching ServSafe is a part-time job, and food service workers tend to be very busy. However, a native Spanish speaker willing to teach the ServSafe program could be of great help to the Latino community.

“If we could find someone who could spare a day a month to teach this class and bring their own restaurant experience and be able to share with their students their own struggles managing and taking the exam,” Krisco said.

The Human Sciences Extension and Outreach is offering this as an outreach for smaller business people, though it expects many new students from a variety of backgrounds. By 2018, any food establishment without a certified manager will be in violation of the law and the restaurant owner could lose licensure.

“This food safety manager certification might mean [the] difference between having a job, not having a job and getting a promotion,” Krisco said.

The turnover rate in the food industry is high and Hispanics tend to work in chains as well. Passing the ServSafe program and exam the first time saves companies money as each additional attempt costs $50. Four attempts are allowed per year.

Latinos make up about 5.5 percent of Iowa’s population, according to the State Data Center of Iowa and nearly 6,700 Latinos are employed in the food service industry.

“The food service industry is big in Iowa and Spanish-speaking people are really important to that industry,” Krisco said. “The exam is not a measure of your food safety; food safety is a practice. In an ideal world, a good and ideal test of someone’s food safety skills would be experiential and give demonstrations of skills and be graded on that.” 

The ISU Extension and Outreach program hopes to continue offering the ServSafe program, not only the textbook and study materials, but also the review and exam in other languages to assist the food and restaurant industry as much as possible.

“It doesn’t really matter if you take the test in English or Spanish as far as your performance in kitchen is concerned,” Krisco said. “It seems that native English-speaking people have many of the same barriers if they’re not college graduates as non-native English speakers. Whether the exam is in Spanish or English, it has no barring — [what’s] important is that they get the knowledge.”