Keep School Lunches Safe
By Diane Van, USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service
As children head back to school this fall, parents and caretakers may wonder, “What’s the most important thing that the kids should take to school with them?” From my perspective as a food safety specialist, I’d recommend an insulated lunch box as the best investment of the school year. For a few dollars, an insulated lunch box can keep children healthy and engaged to learn by protecting them from foodborne illness.
If you pack perishable food in an old-fashioned brown paper bag, it can be unsafe to eat by lunchtime. When children are sent home sick or stay home because of illness, it’s difficult for them to succeed in their school work.
Insulated lunch boxes help maintain food at a safe temperature until lunchtime. Perishable lunch foods, such as cold cut sandwiches and yogurt, can be left out at room temperature for only 2 hours before they may become unsafe to eat. But, with an insulated lunch box and a chilled freezer gel pack, perishable food can stay cold and safe to eat until lunch.
Why keep food cold? Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly in the "Danger Zone" — the temperatures between 40 and 140 °F. So, perishable food transported without a cold source won't stay safe long.
Here are some other tips to keep food safe until lunchtime:
- Clean Hands: Always make sure your hands are clean before preparing lunches. And, make sure your children understand that they need to wash their hands thoroughly before eating lunch or snacks. “Washing hands thoroughly” means using soap and warm water, and rubbing hands for 20 seconds (the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice). If water is not available, provide moist towelettes or hand sanitizing gels in the lunch box.
- Freeze your juice box: You can freeze juice boxes and use them as freezer packs. By lunchtime, the juice should be thawed and ready to drink.
- Hot Foods: To keep hot foods hot, use an insulated bottle like a thermos for foods such as soup, chili, or stew.
- Non-Perishable Food: Some food is safe without a cold source. Lunch items that don't need to be refrigerated include whole fruits and vegetables, hard cheese, canned meat and fish, chips, breads, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard, and pickles.
If the lunch box comes home with food in it, make sure to throw away any perishable food items, because they have been unrefrigerated too long!
Time and temperature abuse are the primary causes of foods becoming unsafe for consumption. People who typically "brown bag" their lunches consume foods that may not be safe to eat. In schools or the work place; the use of refrigeration should be a requirement and provided by the employer. This would avoid food born illness and reduce sick time, a conciderable cost to all employers.
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Helo, thank forthe information. This is a good idea. I want to intoduce it in the schools. Greeting from the green heart of germany.
The best way to keep children's food safe is to allow them to eat a school prepared meal. School nutrition employees in our state have been trained in food safety and sanitation as well as personal cleanliness as it pertains to handling food. The employees in our kitchens keep temperatures at proper levels and know the procedures for handling food that is not at the correct temperature. The environmental specialist inspect our schools twice per year and considering our kitchens receive closer scrutiny than restaurants we receive excellant scores. So when you consider food safety for your children, consider allowing them to eat a school prepared meal.