New Study Says School Lunches Harboring Harmful Bacteria

6 years ago

School lunches are the bane of my existence. My middle schooler and I are always in a constant tug of war over whether or not he should buy lunch at school (ick, I say) or make his own at home (yuck, he says). And once I have wrangled him into making his lunch at home, we argue about what is acceptable for packing. Needless to say, I end up with the task of making the lunch because doing the right thing nutritionally for lunch every day is hard. 

Eating a Safe Lunch

Experts are telling us that what our kids are consuming in their lunches aren’t always good for them—too many processed foods, too much sugar, too little nutrients. So we try harder to make the lunches fresher, more natural and nutrient packed. The truly ambitious attempt to make them environmentally friendly, with less packaging and waste. But in doing so, our kid’s lunch sacks might be harboring another kind of menace--- harmful bacteria.

According to HealthDay News, a new study of preschool lunches found that more than 90 percent of homemade lunches were at an unsafe temperature long before children consumed them for their mid-day meal. 

This means that long before children even begin to eat their lunches, their meals become ideal conditions for bacteria to grow at very rapid rates. So by the time they eat their lunches, the chances that they will consume enough foodborne pathogens to become ill are high.

These research findings are a big red flag for parents trying to do the right thing, especially for young children. According to HealthDay News, kids five and under are more susceptible to foodborne pathogens.  But encounters with illness–causing microorganisms are a risk to every age. As Fawaz Almansour, a doctoral candidate and member of the University of Texas research team points out, when your child comes home ill—with a stomach ache or vomiting-- you are likely to assume that he contracted some kind of virus from a fellow student. The possibility that he is sick from his own lunch is not usually the first thought that comes to mind. Well, now it should be, unless you take some precautions. But effective precautionary steps, as it turns out, are not so easy.

[Click here to see the most common foodborne pathogens and how much they impact our health]

The USDA recommends that cold food be kept at less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and that no food be kept at room temperature for more than two hours. The UT researchers tested the temperature of individual perishable food items from 705 lunches 1.5 hours before the kids' scheduled lunch time. They chose to test at the 1.5 hour mark because children are often allowed to start snacking on their food prior to lunch. They discovered that more than 88 percent of the lunches were at room temperature and that only 1.6 percent of perishable items were kept below the USDA’s recommended 40 degrees.

You might think that this temperature challenge could be solved with an insulated lunch container and an ice pack. But no such luck. Forty-five percent of the lunches had one ice pack. And according to the study, even in lunches that contained multiple ice packs, food items did not  maintain a safe temperature. In light of this, one might resort to leaving food in refrigerators, where available. Surely, this would help, right? Nope! The researchers found that even refrigeration didn’t solve the problem. They surmise that lunches put into refrigerators while still within in insulated containers, were effectively insulated from the refrigeration and thereby did not reap the benefits of being there. And for lunches placed in busy refrigerators, like in a day-care kitchen or a pre-school frig that is shared by many classes, the traffic and frequency of openings make the results spotty since those refrigerators often cannot maintain adequate temperatures.

The researchers did not study whether or not any illness resulted from the unsafe temperatures they discovered in their sample group. And so they cannot speak to the full implications of the study. This means we parents are left to figure it out. And with school right around the corner, we had better pow-wow over some options fast! Surely our best alternative is not to resort to only packaged and processed foods. This would be a nutritional travesty for those of us committed to sending our kids to school with a homemade lunch.

Camilla Saulisbury, The Enlightened Cook, offers an impressive list of healthy non-perishable foods for packing. Her list includes many options and covers every important food group. I especially appreciate the reminder to consider “shelf-stable “ cheeses like those made by  Laughing Cow. Remember those cute little bite-sized cheeses that are preserved in wax? My son loves them!

Sarah Fernandez, at Parentables, suggests  that we freeze foods, like yogurt , to keep  them cold enough until lunchtime. And we can send hot foods, like soup, in a thermos or insulted container as long as the hot food stays at least 140 degrees. 

Danillo Alfaro at Culinary Arts- reminds us that our old stand-by, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, is also a good low-perishable choice. And if your school prohibits peanuts (which is becoming increasingly common) there are lots of other great nut butter choices. Almond butter is our household favorite.

Other options, of course, are the ready-made meals. These are more expensive both in cost and waste, especially if we’re talking about every day lunch. But they are convenient and there are plenty of options. We all know about Oscar Meyers' Lunchables, which have a not-so-stellar reputation for being high in fat, sodium and preservatives and for being expensive. But Nina Says (formerly The One Fantastical) reviewed the new and improved Lunchables and gave them a thumbs up. There was no mention about a lowering in price. But she says the Oscar Meyer folks have reduced the sugar and sodium content by 20%.

The Succulent Wife gave the packaged meal, Go Picnic, a try and said they deserve a thumbs up, too. She says the Go-Picnic folks market their meal as the nutritious choice and boast the absence of trans-fats,  high fructose corn syrup, added monosodium glutamate, artificial flavors or colors.   

Not all prepackaged lunches can assure safety from foodborne pathogens, though. The Whole foods pre-packaged lunch box is assembled on site with lunch meats that are fresh and without nitrites. That is a great option if you are picking up a meal for your kid to eat right away. But they fall under the same risk as homemade meals if they are going to sit and wait for hours to be consumed.

If you have ideas about the ideal sack lunch—healthy, balanced and resistant to bacteria- I invite you...implore you, even-- to share!

Also check out:

What Whole Foods' Chef Anne Cooper is doing to help schools and families improve their lunch menus.

This Guide to Packing Eco-Delicious Lunches.

What Food Poisoning Looks Like

author of 24 Things You can Do With Social Media to Help get Into College, also blogs at Think Act Parent and Tortured By Teenagers

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