When it comes to school lunches, parents might have concerns about the nutritional quality of cafeteria food, or about whether their children will trade their healthy, homemade lunches for junk food. But most parents don’t even think about whether their children’s lunches put them at risk for foodborne illnesses.
According to an article in The New York Times, maybe they should.
While there are no statistics on how often schoolchildren are sickened by the lunches they bring from home, it’s far better to be safe than sorry, said Nancy Donley, the president of STOP Foodborne Illness, an advocacy organization.
Ms. Donley, who lives in Chicago, knows the risks all too well. In 1993 she lost her only child, 6-year-old Alex, to one of the nastiest food contaminants, E. coli 0157:H7, innocently consumed in store-bought ground meat. Rather than retreat into a fetal position, she channeled her grief and anger into helping others avoid a similar tragedy.
Children are more vulnerable to the risks of foodborne illnesses than adults are. In addition, at least for young children, school lunches are often the only meal parents don’t have total control over. You pack the lunch in the morning (or sometimes the night before), and trust that the food stays safe for hours until lunch. Safety takes more than trust.
How to Keep Lunches Safe
According to The New York Times article, there are several things parents can do to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses in school lunches:
- Use an insulated lunchbox…and use it properly. Cold foods need to stay cold, and hot foods need to stay hot. At room temperature, bacteria thrive.
- When purchasing a lunchbox, look for an insulated lining, and for a pocket for a thin freezer pack for cold foods.
- For hot foods (such as chili or soup), use an insulated jug—but preheat the jug with boiling water.
- Some foods can tolerate room temperature. Sliced cheese, peanut butter, almond butter, and soy butter sandwiches won’t spoil at room temperature. Also, any foods that you can store in the pantry at room temperature are also safe–examples: flip-top cans of tuna, boxes of milk or juice. You can also store fruits (dried or fresh) and vegetables at room temperature.
- Freeze and defrost. You can freeze boxes of juice and milk–they will defrost by lunch, and serve as an ice pack in the lunchbox. In addition, The New York Times reports that lunch meats, hummus, tuna, and egg salad can be frozen overnight, and will defrost by lunch. (Don’t freeze lettuce and tomato, though. If you like to include those, pack them separately.)
- Wash fruits and veggies. Fresh fruits and vegetables can harbor E. coli and other bacteria. Make sure to wash them thoroughly, or peel them.
- Throw away after-school leftovers. If your child brings home leftovers that start out hot or cold (including the frozen sandwiches mentioned above), don’t be tempted to save them. They may have survived until lunchtime without contamination, but you can’t assume that the food is safe all the way home.
- Pack hand sanitizers with lunch. Food can become contaminated if touched by hands that contain bacteria. It would be great if kids had time to wash their hands before lunch, but many do not. If you pack a pocket-sized hand sanitizer or an antibacterial towelette in the lunchbox, you can also combat germs that are totally out of your control.
To read the full article in The New York Times, click here: Smart Choices to Ensure Safety at Lunch
Also, you may want to watch our YouTube videos about Foodborne Illness: