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Keeping Foods Safe For a Successful School Year

Posted by Robert Gravani, Senior Advisor for Food Safety, Office of the Chief Scientist in Health and Safety
Aug 28, 2015

As the days get shorter and the month of August winds down with the appearance of back-to-school sales, we recognize the telltale signs that signal the “official” end of summer and the beginning of a new school year.  For USDA professionals interested in food safety, nutrition and health, thoughts of safe food preparation and school lunches packed at home, come to mind. 

It is estimated that each year in the U.S., there are more than 48 million cases of foodborne illness, with 128,000 people hospitalized from these illnesses and nearly 3,000 deaths.  It is startling that one in six Americans will become ill from foodborne illness each year since most are preventable.  The most vulnerable members of our population are pregnant women, children, the elderly and those whose immune systems are compromised by other diseases and illnesses.  That’s why care must be taken to assure that the foods consumed are safe.

When it comes to preparing safe lunches for your children or grandchildren, there are a few precautions to take and a few simple tips to follow.  By remembering four key principles to assure safety – Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill – many foodborne illnesses can be prevented.  

Clean.  Make sure that your hands are properly washed before you begin preparing any food.   The surfaces that you are using to prepare the lunches and all utensil and equipment should be clean.  Separate.  Be sure to keep raw foods and cooked separate and thoroughly wash all equipment and utensils after they come in contact with raw foods.  Cook.  Cook foods to the appropriate temperature using a food thermometer.  Chill.  Make sure that foods are properly chilled and that perishable foods like luncheon meats, eggs and yogurt included in lunch bags are kept cold with freezer packs or frozen water bottles. 

Some other tips to think about include:

  1. Freezing juice boxes to help keep the lunch cold.
  2. Use an insulated lunch box or bag instead of a paper bag.  
  3. Children should wash their hands for 20 seconds with warm soapy water before eating.  
  4. If possible, have your child store their lunch in a refrigerator and leave the lid of the insulated bag or box open so cool air circulates to keep the food cold. 
  5. When packing hot foods like soup, stew or chili, fill the insulated container with boiling water and let stand for a few minutes.  After emptying the water, the hot food can be put in the container, which should be left closed until it is eaten.  The temperature of the food should be 140°F or above. 

After lunch is consumed, leftover food and used food packaging should be thrown away, or if possible, recycled or composted.  Following these principles and tips will provide your kids with safe and satisfying lunches for their back-to-school activities.  Please visit for more information.

Category/Topic: Health and Safety