The brown paper bag lunch was the lunch of choice, well actually the only choice for school lunch when my son was in elementary school.
There was no school cafeteria, just a lunch room where he could purchase a container of milk and sit with friends eating, sharing and trading what was in his brown paper bag.
Given the lack of refrigeration at his school, my daily challenge was to pack a lunch that wouldn’t spoil between the time he left for school and his lunch period.
Today’s elementary schools have cafeterias, where a child can purchase lunch or, if he or she qualifies, participate in a subsidized lunch program. However this is not the case in many daycare centers and preschools where a child must still carry his or her own lunch.
A recent study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, raised concerns about the safety of carrying and eating a bag lunch even when the lunch is in an insulated bag that contain ice packs or other coolant.
About half of daycare centers in the U.S. require kids to bring lunch from home. The investigators examined lunches of 235 daycare attendees at nine Texas centers. The individual contents of their sack lunches were assessed on three random days between 9:30 and 11 a.m.
Of the 705 lunches, 11.8% were stored in a refrigerator, but teachers often left them sitting out for a couple hours first. The rest were stored at room temperature in cubbies without much air circulation.
While about 91% of the lunches were sent in insulated plastic bags, the mean temperature of food items reached nearly room temperature (63.7 °F). Just 22 of the 1361 perishable food items (1.6%) were in the “safe” range below 39.2°F.
Ice packs didn’t help much. Only five of the 61 perishable food items with multiple ice packs in the lunch bag stayed the right temperature (8.2%).
Investigators found nearly all lunches packed from home got too warm to prevent food-borne illness despite use of ice packs. Even with the use of multiple ice packs, more than 90% of perishables in the lunches reached unsafe temperatures.
The study points to the need for:
- Preschool and daycare staff receiving more training in food safety
- Parents finding better ways to pack lunches safely
- Manufacturers developing ice packs and lunch bags that do a better job