CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University’s food preservation and safety hotline returns for its 35th year beginning July 13.
With a renewed interest occurring within food preserving, the statewide hotline is as important as ever, according to Nellie Oehler, who helped create the OSU Extension Service’s Master Food Preserver program. The program trains volunteers to answer questions on the help line, as well as at events like farmers markets and county fairs.
For many of the people who sign up for the eight-week course, food safety is one of the major reasons for their commitment to the 48 hours of class time and 40 to 70 hours of volunteering, said Oehler, coordinator for the program in Lane County. In 2014, more than 250 people were certified or recertified as Master Food Preservers and they gave back more than 25,000 hours.
“It’s so important because there’s so much misinformation on the web,” she said. “For canning recipes, it has to be research-based or it can be lethal.”
Volunteer Michelle Martin’s recalls of learning about a youngster who died from causes related to food poisoning.
“If I can help, I’m all for it,” said Martin, who lives in Lebanon and took the course in spring in Linn County.
Correct information is all the more relevant today because at least a generation has grown up without anyone in the family to pass down their experience and knowledge, Oehler said.
“The biggest learning curve was throwing away what you know – or think you know – and using tested recipes,” said Ruby Moon, who came to the once-a-week class in Linn County from Siletz. “In the Master Food Preserver classes you learn precisely what to do. This has changed the way I can.”
The hotline (800-354-7319) runs through Oct. 16 and again during the Thanksgiving holiday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. When the hotline is closed, callers can leave a message. Additionally, many Extension offices offer free pressure gauge testing.
Moon, Martin and other Master Food Preservers in 20 of Oregon’s 36 counties share their knowledge at events, while those trained in Douglas and Lane counties staff the hotline that gets thousands of questions a year -- 3,040 in 2014.
“You name it, we’ve been asked it,” said Roseburg volunteer Rayma Davis, who is serving as hotline coordinator for the second year. “There was one lady who called in and wanted to know if she stacked 10 pounds of books on top of her pot, would that give her 10 pounds of pressure in her canner. We explained that wasn’t the way it worked.”
Davis and other hotline volunteers refer to thick binders of recipes and research-based information vetted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The answers aren’t always obvious.
“It’s about critical thinking,” Davis said. “Someone might ask what’s the time required to can pickled fish. Well, you can’t can pickled fish. A new volunteer would probably not know that, so they’d have to know how to look it up. It’s kind of a trick question. We get them all day.”
Not all questions cause serious concern, though. Second-year volunteer Jacqui Richardson of Roseburg still chuckles about a call she got last summer.
“The woman asked if she could put salsa in jelly jars,” Richardson remembered. “I paused and said, ‘You know, I think you could.’ ”
Master Food Preservers focus on safety, but they are also excited to learn about canning, pickling, drying and other forms of preserving food for themselves and for sharing with others. The camaraderie they find with the fellow volunteers is important, too.
“We have this thing that connects us,” said Moon as she poured baked beans into a sterilized jar. “It’s my favorite part of the week. I go home and say, ‘Guess what I did in canning class?’ It’s like Christmas.”