MOLOKAI, Hawaii— During an Aug. 14 training in Molokai, Airmen put military public health expertise on display by conducting a public health food services inspection.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Cassie Cobble, a public health officer with the Washington Air National Guard’s 194th Wing, led the training at the Veterans Caring for Veterans Center. The center’s members planned to cook food for troops serving in Molokai. Because the food would not be prepared by service members, the Airmen saw an opportunity to conduct a food services inspection training in a real-world environment. The importance of food services inspections was not lost on Cobble.
“Disease takes more people out of the fight than bombs and bullets,” said Cobble. “For example, when I was overseas we had a norovirus outbreak that affected 500 service members.”
The section leader for the medical screenings component of Tropic Care Maui County 2018 in Molokai, part of a larger military Innovative Readiness Training mission taking place in Maui, Molokai, and Lanai, also recognized the gravity of the issue.
“Nothing impacts the mission more than disease,” said U.S. Air Force Col. William Bray, the commander of the 181st Medical Group, 181st Intelligence Wing.
Cobble walked Airmen attending the training through the inspection process, which begins as soon as the inspector walks through the door.
“As an inspector, I walk in unannounced,” said Cobble. “That’s a good initial check of security. If I can go about my business without being stopped, that’s a huge problem. Security is important, especially in a deployed environment.”
The inspection then continues with the guidance of a food operation inspection report.
Public health personnel use an objective checklist to complete inspections, said Cobble. For food services inspections, I inspect everything from food storage area temperatures to equipment maintenance to the food services employees themselves. Each checklist item is then given one of four ratings, ranging from fully compliant to non-compliant.
Still, a demerit on a checklist item while the inspection is ongoing is not necessarily an automatic non-compliance violation, and dialogue with the food services provider is important.
“There are things that can be on-the-spot corrections,” said U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Shawnna Landeros, a health services management specialist assigned to the 125th Fighter Wing. “You can start a dialogue to get the food services provider to correct the violation before they get written up.”
That dialogue becomes more complex when local area customs or traditions are involved. This entails additional legwork for public health personnel.
“You have to be understanding of other areas’ requirements and regulations,” said Cobble. “You also have to be culturally sensitive and be generally aware of other cultures.”
With the local veterans’ center, Cobble faced an additional challenge: she had limited options while conducting the inspection in her capacity as a military officer.
“For civilian operations, I can only make recommendations,” said Cobble. “I cannot take administrative action, but I can mitigate risk as best I can.”
Aside from having services troops offer to assist with food preparation, one of the ways the Airmen were able to mitigate potential public health risks to service members at the center was the source of food.
They are purchasing their food from the same grocery store as the
services Airmen purchasing food at our Molokai site, said Bray, and there have not been any issues from that store at this point.
While the risk factors to troops often go unnoticed, public health professionals remain vigilant.
“It’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work,” said Cobble. “If you see me walking around asking how people are doing, I’m actually doing active surveillance. The aphorism is, ‘no one knows what public health does until somebody gets sick.’”
Of course, avoiding disease by mitigating risk factors right from the start is one of the goals for public health service members. With that in mind, Cobble has some simple advice.
“Lean on public health personnel,” said Cobble. “A good rule of thumb is if you see a public health person eating somewhere, you’re probably safe.”