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Gearing Up for School with Food Safety

July 31, 2014
Brown paper bag and a red apple

As August gets underway, the No. 1 thought on every parent, caretaker and student’s mind is starting to shift to the new school year. With a long list of “things to do” to get ready, one of the things parents must consider is their student’s lunchtime safety.

Each year, children ages 6 to 12 bring a packed lunch to school at least once a week, on average. To ensure a student’s lunch is properly packed, there are several steps parents or caretakers should follow to keep food poisoning at bay. Parents may consider the tips below a personal food safety checklist for back to school this year, to keep packed lunches safe and prevent foodborne illness.

Storing Lunch

One of the most concerning safety hazards for a home-packed lunch is proper storage. Picture it: The lonely lunch box, sitting in a cubby or locker for hours until lunchtime rolls around. By that time, food may have already been sitting in the temperature “danger zone” (between 42°F and 139°F) too long. To prevent this:

  • When choosing a lunchbox, the best option is one with an insulated lining or an insulated pocket that can hold a reusable frozen cold pack.
  • Periodically wash the lunchbox in warm, soapy water to prevent bacteria from growing on the surfaces of the lunchbox (replace annually if possible).

Prepping the Kitchen

Before actually packing up that perfect lunchbox, the first preventative measure is cleanliness and sanitation, to prevent cross contamination of germs and bacteria:

  • Before handling food, always wash hands with warm water and soap for 20-30 seconds.
  • Wipe food preparation surfaces (ex. counter, cutting boards) using a household cleaner or bleach solution (1 tbsp. of liquid bleach per gallon of water).
  • Prevent cross contamination; re-sanitize any prep surfaces that may have come into contact with raw meat, poultry or fish.
  • Use clean utensils (knives, etc.) and clean packing materials (plastic container or zip top bag).

Packing Lunch

After the kitchen is sanitized, it is time to safely pack that lunchbox. Pantry items are considered “shelf-stable” foods that are the most convenient to pack, because they do not require refrigeration or cooking.

Refrigerated or perishable items can be a little trickier. When perishable foods are potentially in the “danger zone,” they should be eaten within four hours and thrown out after that. Otherwise, bacteria begin multiplying and the food product may cause foodborne illness. To ensure lunch does not spoil before lunchtime happens, there are several things parents can do.

  • Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water before packing. If possible, don’t slice the produce first (it will stay fresher longer).
  • Once the lunch box is packed, keep it in the refrigerator until the student leaves for school.
  • Store a cold pack or frozen juice pouch near perishable items.

In the winter, hot soups or chili might be an option. If so, hot foods should be kept at or above 140°F, which can be accomplished using an insulated thermos or container. This keeps the food hot until lunchtime and prevents it from dropping into the temperature danger zone.

Remember that food safety isn’t just for parents. It should be a family affair; take time to educate children on the importance of hand washing before eating lunch, and properly storing the lunchbox (ex. in a shady cubby hole versus a sunny counter). Following these tips should ensure the student’s food is not only appetizing, but safe to eat!

About the Author

Eythan Franklin is an intern for the Georgia Department of Agriculture in the Food Safety Division. He attends the University of Georgia and is majoring in Food Science. He enjoys public outreach and educating others on proper food safety techniques.

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