In just a few weeks, summertime will be winding down and children will be heading back to school. September is National Food Safety Education Month and STOP Foodborne Illness, the leading national advocate for safe food, is shining the spotlight on ways to keep school lunches safe and kids healthy.
Now is the perfect time to educate children on food safety, both in the classroom and at home. For parents who pack lunches for their precious kiddos, STOP Foodborne Illness has tips for keeping harmful pathogens out of the lunch box and for packing safe lunches as part of your daily morning routine. We also want you to know that food safety activism isn’t just for parents. Teachers can take action as well by adding food safety to their curriculum. Use STOP’s Curriculum Materials and Education Resources for Teachers to educate your students and make a difference.
For packing your child’s lunch to prevent foodborne illness, STOP Foodborne Illness suggests:
- Keep in mind the bacteria danger zone. Bacteria grow rapidly in the temperature “danger zone” of 40-140° F.
- Wash your hands. When preparing lunches, STOP Foodborne Illness emphasizes the importance of washing your hands thoroughly and keeping all surfaces you’re working on clean. Use this as an opportunity to explain the importance of hand-washing in preventing foodborne illness.
- Use an insulated lunch box. Whether hard-sided or soft, this helps keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot until it’s time to eat them. Food safety experts agree: This is a “must have” item. Using an insulated box will help keep your child’s food out of the bacteria “danger zone.”
- Use ice packs. Another “must have,” according to STOP Foodborne Illness, these inexpensive items are vital for keeping cold foods cold. You can pick them up for about $1 each.
- Use an insulated thermos. This keeps hot foods hot, like soups, chili, or mac and cheese.
- Freeze drinks before packing. Frozen milk, juice boxes, and water bottles will help keep the drinks cold, along with other cold foods you’ve packed. Frozen items will melt during morning classes and be ready for drinking at lunch.
- Pack hot foods while hot. Don’t wait for hot foods to cool down before packing. Instead, pour piping hot foods like soups immediately into an insulated thermos. You can also preheat your thermos by filling it with boiling water, letting it sit for a few minutes, pouring out the water, and then adding your hot food.
- Wash and separate fresh fruits/veggies. STOP Foodborne Illness recommends washing produce thoroughly before packing in plastic containers to keep them away from other foods. After washing, dry produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present on the surface.
- Use individual snack packs. Portions packed from larger bags of items like pretzels, chips, and cookies means potential exposure to bacteria from many hands that have been in and out of the bag. To help prevent the spread of germs, STOP recommends using individual-sized servings.
- Add room-temperature-safe foods. Use nonperishable items or foods that do not need refrigeration like peanut butter, jelly, cookies, crackers, chips, dried fruit, and certain whole fruits.
- Encourage your child to wash their hands. Before and after eating their lunch, STOP Foodborne Illness asks you to stress how important it is to wash their hands. Hand-washing with soap and water is best, but wet wipes or hand sanitizer will work in a pinch.
- Avoid putting food on tables. Once kids are in the cafeteria, they shouldn’t put their food on the table. Pack a paper towel or some wax paper they can use instead.
- Explain the 5-second myth. Be sure your child knows that the “5-second rule” is a myth. Any food that touches the floor needs to be thrown away.
- Toss perishable food. To avoid foodborne illness, let your child know it is okay to throw away perishables like meat, poultry or egg sandwiches, if not eaten at lunchtime. Unopened, room-temperature-safe foods and uneaten fruit can be kept.
- Make sure lunch boxes are regularly cleaned and sanitized. We recommend you clean your child’s box each evening before packing the next day’s lunch. Find out more with these box cleaning tips.
Food Safety Tips for School Cafeteria Lunches
For children who eat their lunch through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), STOP Foodborne Illness believes it is imperative to teach them ways they can help prevent foodborne illness at lunchtime, too.
Though the U.S. Department of Agriculture states they are “committed to a comprehensive, coordinated approach to food safety for the NSLP,” the sad reality is that STOP Foodborne Illness has recounted numerous stories shared by parents of children who have become gravely ill from lunches served at schools.
On their website, you can find the story of Lindsay, a young girl who endured extensive health problems and horrific pain after eating a strawberry dessert served at her Michigan school that was contaminated with Hepatitis A. And Lindsay wasn’t the only victim. A huge outbreak ensued with hundreds more Michigan children getting sick with Hepatitis A from tainted strawberries.
STOP Foodborne Illness urges you to do a couple of things:
First, talk with your kids about this issue and share food safety tips they need to use, which include:
- Washing their hands. Your child should wash his/her hands before and after they eat.
- Avoiding putting food on tables. Keep it on the plate, or put a napkin down.
- Checking for undercooked food. For instance, if hamburger meat looks raw/pink, your child shouldn’t eat it. “Hot” foods that are cold in the middle should not be eaten.
- Checking for food that looks spoiled. Your child shouldn’t eat vegetables or fruits that are wilting, have mold, or look discolored. Help your child learn more with these tips.
- Reporting unsanitary conditions. Examples include: Cafeteria workers not wearing gloves or hairnets, surfaces or equipment that are dirty, yellowish water flowing from a drinking fountain, and bugs or rodents roaming around. If your child sees these kinds of unacceptable conditions, they should report it to a school authority ASAP.
- Inspect the cafeteria yourself. STOP Foodborne Illness urges every parent to make a personal visit to their child’s school and take a good look around the kitchen and cafeteria. Anything that looks like a possible food safety hazard should be reported to school authorities.
Feel free to use STOP’s factsheet Rylee & Rusty Discuss Food Safety; a kid-friendly way to start a conversation with your children about food safety.
Next, STOP asks that you become an advocate for improved school food safety practices. Start by reviewing this Food-Safe Schools Action Guide published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s intended for school nutrition directors, but it’s an excellent resource for parents, too. This guide helps bring together all aspects of safety that need to be considered when serving food in schools. It’ll help you become aware of regulations, ask good questions, and take action on anything you feel isn’t up to snuff.
Contact your legislators easily using the STOP Foodborne Illness Legislative Action Center. Urge them to keep school lunches safe.
Letter submitted by advocacy group STOP Foodborne Illness, a national, nonprofit, public health organization dedicated to preventing illness and death from foodborne pathogens by advocating for sound public policies, building public awareness and assisting those impacted by foodborne illness. For more food safety tips please visit www.stopfoodborneillness.org/awareness/. If you think you have been sickened from food, check and contact your local health professional. For questions and personal assistance, please contact STOP Foodborne Illness’ Community Coordinator, Stanley Rutledge, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 773-269-6555 x7.
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