Considering the large number of restaurants, restaurant employees, and restaurant patrons across the nation, it is essential that health departments establish and manage retail food regulatory programs. Health departments play a critical role in protecting the public from foodborne illnesses through these programs, which often include vital activities such as inspecting restaurants, responding to foodborne disease outbreaks, and ensuring that restaurant employees are trained in food safety practices.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) developed the Voluntary National Retail Food Regulatory Program Standards (Retail Program Standards) to guide health departments in designing and managing a retail food regulatory program and provide a means of recognizing programs that meet the standards. The Retail Program Standards consists of nine standards that enable health departments to critically assess and improve their retail food regulatory programs.
The FDA partnered with NACCHO to create a mentorship program for the Retail Program Standards as part of an ongoing effort to increase the program’s utility among local health departments. The mentorship program matches agencies seeking assistance with the Retail Program Standards with seasoned peers to help advance their work towards meeting the standards while building sustained capacity within the health department. The program has assisted approximately 60 local health departments participating in the mentorship program to share experiences and learn about tools and resources related to the Retail Program Standards.
The mentorship program began in 2012 with nine local health departments and has grown to 25 in the fourth cohort. The fourth cohort just wrapped up in August with an in-person meeting in Washington, D.C. During the meeting, more than 50 participants from the program, NACCHO, and FDA convened and shared their experiences, accomplishments, tips, challenges, and lessons learned. Participants from Outagamie County Public Health Division, WI, described the meeting as “an ideal venue for sharing ideas and to discuss lessons learned from a variety of agencies across the United States … the in-person meeting brought together Cohort 4 mentees and mentors along with FDA officials who all have a passion for program improvement and the Program Standards.”
Local health department staff receiving mentorship have found the program to be a great learning and networking experience. As a testament to the value of the mentorship program, participants have returned as mentors in subsequent years. One such example is Lake County General Health District, who participated as mentees during the second cohort and then mentors in the fourth cohort. Participating staff said “the act of being a mentor caused us to revisit our Standards and reinvest time and energy back into the program. We continued our efforts to meet Standard 7 and achieved a verification audit. We became reenergized within the program and applied for the competitive FDA grant to achieve Standard 9.”
Read below for additional testaments from past cohorts:
- Summit County Environmental Health in Colorado worked on meeting Standard 2 (Trained Regulatory Staff). They described the process as a lot of work, but a rewarding experience that will benefit their retail food program and county. “Meeting Standard 2 will benefit our county by ensuring that all staff members have received a high level of training as outlined by FDA. All regulated facilities will be inspected by qualified inspectors and will be getting more uniform inspections.”
- As a mentee, Englewood Department of Health in New Jersey thought the mentorship program provided the health department with a nation-wide peer support system. “We find it reassuring to know that we can share information with one another and learn what may be an opportunity for our department may be a strength of another … together we can learn from each other to aid in the improvement of our programs,” staff said.
- Acting as mentor for three cohorts, Alexandria Health Department in Virginia thought that participation provided opportunities to critically assess the health department’s own food safety program. Staff state that it was also an opportunity “to gain the momentum necessary to review and update program documents, as well as (find) ways to achieve compliance with the final two standards … Participating in the mentorship program also helped train new staff in the Program Standards. Having a greater and deeper awareness of the program standards is helping us drive our own program forward. “
- Also a mentor for three cohorts, Wake County Environmental Services Departments in North Carolina, describes how mentors also learn from their mentees. “There is a lot of energy in relationships and in partnering with others who are equally excited about a common project. With an appropriate match, there is a lot of opportunity for learning both for the mentee and the mentor. Not only do the partners learn the technical aspects of advancing the [Retail] Program Standards, but partners learn about other communities and challenges that are similar to their own.”
Don’t miss out on the opportunity to apply for the next cohort! Request for applications for the mentorship program is open from October 1-31! Visit the NACCHO Mentorship Program webpage for more information.