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September 8, 1999

Safe School Lunch Tips Can Help Prevent Illness

WASHINGTON, D.C. (SafetyAlerts) - September is National Food Safety Education Month, which is especially significant since it also marks the beginning of another school year when millions of students will pack and carry homemade lunches.

"By following some simple food safety rules, students can avoid getting sick from a lunch that was not properly handled," cautions Diane Van, Acting Manager of USDA’s nationwide, toll-free Meat and Poultry Hotline. "Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold and don’t leave any perishable foods at room temperature for more than two hours. These tips are part of a major public and private food safety education program, ‘Fight BAC!™’, to help reduce the incidence of foodborne illness."

Van advises that to save time, school lunches can be safely made ahead of time, for example, the night before, and kept cold either in the refrigerator or the freezer.

"In this way, students and parents have a head start in keeping perishable sandwiches cold longer. An insulated lunch box is preferred, but a double-bagged paper bag can also be used. By double-bagging, the cold is kept inside for a longer time and also the bag will not become soggy."

Van also recommends that a cold source be included in the insulated lunch box or paper bag. These include a freezer gel widely available in grocery stores or a frozen juice box. Pack perishables, including deli meats, poultry or egg sandwiches, between these cold items. Van also suggests that lunch boxes and bags be kept away from heat sources, such as direct sunlight or room radiators.

Just as important as safely preparing and storing a school lunch, is to know when to throw something out.

"It comes down to two words: ‘No leftovers!’ If you don’t finish your sandwich at lunch, throw it out. Don’t try to save it by taking it back home. The freezer gel won’t hold all afternoon, not even in an insulated lunch box," Van says.

In addition to keeping perishable foods cold, hot foods, such as soup, chili or stew, should be kept piping hot in an insulated bottle. Add hot water to the insulated bottle, let stand for a few minutes, then empty and fill with the hot food.

"One final advice to help assure a safe school lunch is to keep everything clean when making and packing the lunch," Van cautions. "That not only goes for the food, but also for food preparation surfaces, hands and utensils. Wash hands before preparing or eating food. And keep the family pet away from kitchen counters."

For more information on packing safe lunches for school (and work, too!) call the toll-free Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-800-535-4555. In the Washington, DC area, the number is 202-720-3333. The Hotline is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Eastern Time, year-round. Also, a selection of timely food safety recordings are available 24 hours a day, every day, by using a touch-tone phone and the user-friendly menu, which prompts callers.


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