Back to school means take-along lunches for some kids and teachers. It’s important to take extra care of foods packed in the morning and not eaten until lunchtime to prevent growth of bacteria that cause foodborne illness, according to LSU AgCenter nutritionist Dr. Beth Reames.
Foodborne illness occurs as the result of eating food that is contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or toxins. Foodborne illness causes symptoms such as upset stomach, vomiting, diarrhea and headache.
Most cases of foodborne illness last only a couple of days but can be serious for young children, pregnant women, the elderly and the immune-compromised, Reames explains.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year in the United States an estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illness occur. An estimated 325,000 of these cases lead to hospitalization, and, for 5,000 people, the illness leads to death.
Reames offers specific food packing guidelines to help keep foods safe to eat.
Start with clean hands and work area. Wash hands, utensils and work surfaces with hot soapy water before preparing food.
Keep cold foods cold. Cold foods need to be kept below 40 degrees to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. If the temperature is allowed to rise to 40 degrees or above, enough bacteria can grow within the first 2 hours to cause sickness.
Reames recommends insulated lunch boxes over paper bags. If using paper bags, double them to help insulate. Place the ice source in an airtight, sealed bag.
Ice packs in various sizes and shapes are available. You can make your own ice packs. Fill an airtight bag with water within 1 inch of the seal and freeze.
Freezing a juice drink and packing with the lunch will help keep the lunch cold and will provide a cold drink once lunchtime arrives.
Most schools provide cold milk at a minimal cost. If you choose to send your own, store it in a well-insulated thermos container.
If you do not have ice packs at your disposal, freeze your sandwich. Coarser bread, such as whole wheat, works best. White bread tends to become soggy. Toppings such as dressings, lettuce and tomato should be packed separately and put on the sandwich later to preserve freshness.
Keep hot foods hot. Hot foods need be kept above 140 degrees to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. If the temperature falls to 140 or below, enough bacteria can grow within the first 2 hours to cause sickness.
Put hot foods in a thermos that has been heated. Place hot water in the thermos and let it sit for 2-3 minutes, and then put the hot food in. To keep food hot, do not open the thermos until you’re ready to eat.
Lunch containers. Insulated containers are best. If you prefer using brown paper lunch bags, do not use pre-used bags or grocery bags. These bags could already contain harmful bacteria.
Clean lunch boxes, food containers and thermoses with hot soapy water after each use. If you can’t keep food at a safe temperature, pack those that do not need to be kept hot or cold, such as peanut butter, packaged fruits, preserved/canned meats and poultry that have not been opened or refrigerated, bread, dried fruit, single-serve juices (that have not been opened or refrigerated), nuts, crackers, fresh fruits and vegetables that have not been cut, cereal, cookies, cheese spread, canned (unopened) fruits.
The Centers for Disease Control offers additional sack lunch safety tips.
– Don't allow food to remain at room temperature for more than 2 hours, 1 hour in hot weather. The appearance and smell of food is not always changed by the presence of bacteria. If your child brings his lunch home after school, the leftovers probably are not safe to eat. "When in doubt, throw it out."
– Do not re-use airtight bags or food wraps. If a refrigerator is not available at school, keep lunches in a cool, dry place, not in the sun. Sandwiches that have been made the night before should be refrigerated and placed directly into a cooled lunch bag in the morning.
– Before your child heads back to school, test the safety of the lunchbox. Pack and store a lunch exactly as you would for a school day. At the designated lunchtime, test the temperature of the foods with a food thermometer. Cold foods are safe to eat at temperatures below 40 degrees; hot foods are safe to eat at temperatures above 140 degrees.
For additional information about safe eating, contact the LSU AgCenter Extension agent in your parish. For related family and back-to-school topics, click on the Family and Home link on the LSU AgCenter homepage, at www.lsuagcenter.com.
On the Internet: LSU AgCenter: www.lsuagcenter.com
Source: Beth Reames (225) 578-3929, or firstname.lastname@example.org