An important part of obtaining a degree is realizing how one is going to use it in the "real world.”
Dillon Li had no problem doing that even before he received his master’s in public health (MPH) degree, housed in the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Environmental Health.
Li says training he received at UC, in addition to his networks in the health care community and his nationality, allowed him to really make a difference for restaurant business owners and employees—not to mention consumers—in Cincinnati.
"I was contacted this spring by one of my friends who owned a Chinese restaurant in the area to let me know that there were some food safety issues and that the Cincinnati Health Department was going to shut them down,” he says, adding that this was a restaurant he frequented and had formed relationships with not only the owners but also the workers in this establishment. "The health department inspected this restaurant two times within the past year, and the supervisor of sanitation noted some violations that needed to be addressed; however, those changes were never made.”
Li says the restaurant was closed for one day, and he made the trip to the establishment to help review the violations and—most importantly—translate the issues.
"The owners and workers did not speak or read English very well,” he says. "I was able to help them develop an improvement plan that afternoon; they made the improvements that evening, and sanitarians came in the next day to take a look. They said that the problems were addressed and that it was OK to reopen and proceed with business.”
Li was there throughout the review process to translate questions and answers between the restaurant staff and the sanitarians from the health department. However, his work was far from done.
"Unfortunately the following week, there was an unannounced inspection in which several temperature issues, dealing with storage and thawing processes, employee hygiene problems and food preparation violations were documented, and the restaurant was again suspended and closed down for an entire week,” he says.
Li was again called, and this time, he helped the owner develop an entire plan to get this restaurant back on track in order to save jobs and livelihoods as well as keep local diners safe.
"About 3,000 to 5,000 people die every year from foodborne illnesses, with a health care cost of over $100 billion. This whole issue was exacerbated by miscommunications—most owners, chefs and servers literally could not understand the instruction because of the language barrier,” Li says. "I helped them develop a cleaning plan and helped them purchase new, commercial-grade appliances for the restaurant.”
Li says he conducted food-safety training for staff and discussed these issues with Dale Grigsby, the supervising sanitarian for food safety at the Cincinnati Health Department.
"Sanitarians at the health department are trained and provide food license holders with the education and preventative measures they need,” said Grigsby, "but if license holders cannot understand English, then that is where folks like Mr. Li make a world of difference.”
"Dale provided me with fliers and posters, which I was able to translate into Mandarin Chinese and hang in the establishment to remind workers about complying with food safety and hygiene standards,” he says, adding that he also translated and put together temperature and cleaning logs for employees so that they knew when to throw food away or what to clean daily, weekly and monthly and were able to document these actions.
One week later, the sanitarians were back to do the inspection. Li, again, was there for the whole process.
"They passed the initial inspection, and the next day I gave a presentation, educating the 10 employees about the rules that must be followed to meet health department standards and pass inspection,” he says, adding that he translated his presentation and the evaluation tests into Chinese and English for everyone involved. "Three sanitarians were there to document that these individuals participated in the training and passed the knowledge test, and following this step, the health department felt it was OK for the restaurant to reopen—10 days from its initial shutdown.”
Li says he was pleased to not only keep food safe for local consumers but also to help these restaurant owners and staff—his friends—keep their jobs.
"It’s so important to keep these cultural differences in mind,” he says. "All it took was a little time to help them understand what was expected of them. By providing this intervention, I was able to assure healthy food options for the general public and to keep a local business open as well as secure incomes for 10 employees. And it was all by putting my public health training to use.”
Now, Li has been contacted by the Cincinnati Health Department to give his presentation to all local Chinese business owners and is available for assistance when sanitarians make their inspections.
"I applied my public health learning to help members of my ethnic community,” says Li, adding that he used to work in a restaurant in China before coming to the United States. "This was a realization of my value as a liaison to this segment of the community and public health. It’s a good feeling.”
Bill Mase, DrPH, director of the MPH program, says Li is a shining example of how this degree is improving health in the community.
"The importance of food safety is something that the MPH faculty and students are committed to assuring,” he says. "Dillon has served as both an ambassador within the community, representing the University of Cincinnati, as well as an advocate for every resident and visitor to the city of Cincinnati through his efforts to guarantee that standards for food safety are met.”