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USDA Issues Helpful Reminders for Your School Lunch Prep

Posted by Jesus Garcia, Public Affairs Specialist, Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA in Food and Nutrition Health and Safety
Aug 17, 2022
Image of insulated lunch bag

More than 50 million youth are expected to attend U.S. schools this fall, and a good portion will be taking their own lunches to school. To help parents and caregivers prepare to-go meals safely, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers some advice.

Homemade school lunches strive to contain healthy nutrients to fuel the day, but perishable lunches do the body no good if they cross over to the “Danger Zone” in poorly insulated bags with no cooling or heating option. If these lunches are kept in temperatures between 40 F and 140 F for more than two hours (or one hour when it’s 90 F outside), bacteria will multiply quickly and make food unsafe. Here are some tips:

  1. Use an insulated lunch bag. Avoid brown paper bags. Purchase an insulated bag and add a frozen gel pack and a frozen juice box or bottle of water to keep items at 40 F or below.
  2. Keep it hot. If soup, chili or stew is on the menu, use an insulated container to keep food heated. Fill the container with boiling water, let it stand for a few minutes, empty it, and then pour in the hot liquid meal. Keep the insulated container closed until lunchtime to keep items at 140 F or above.
  3. Choose non-refrigerated items. Include options that don’t require refrigeration in your child’s lunch, like whole fruits, raw and uncut vegetables, hard cheeses, unopened shelf stable meats and fish cans and pouches, chips, bread, crackers, peanut butter and jelly.

Learn how to keep meals safe with USDA’s Four Steps to Food Safety. For more information, contact the Meat and Poultry Hotline from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday via:

Want a reminder about safe internal temperatures for meat, poultry, fish and egg? Order a free USDA Kitchen Magnet.

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Curtis Rickertsen
Aug 19, 2022

Question is if a child with a food allergy attends a school and the schools receive additional funds for this child food but doesn't have the right equipment to cook and keep the child food safe. What can be done for this child?

Ben Weaver
Aug 22, 2022

@Curtis Rickertsen - thank you for your comment. Our agency, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), with USDA, generally defers to the health department of the state, city, or county to inspect foodservice establishments (restaurants, cafeterias and grocery stores). Each state makes its own rules, often based on the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) retail model Food Code. School cafeterias are also inspected by the health departments (e.g. local, county or State). We would recommend that you first contact local health department (search online e.g. “name of county+state+health department”).

You can find the State contacts at: -- look for “Food Safety and Foodservice/Retail’ branches, or when you call, ask to speak with a Food Sanitarian.

Our sister agency, the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), with USDA, works closely with Food Distribution programs, which would include School Lunch and School Breakfast Meals. You can consult further with a regional FNS contact, here is the site to find your office contacts with FNS-USDA: FNS Regional Offices | Food and Nutrition Service (

They are listed by geographic regions.

We hope this helps, however if you need further assistance, especially in locating these offices (health departments or regional FNS office), please call our USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline toll-free at 1-888-674-6854, between 10:00 am and 6:00 pm EST.

Best Regards,
USDA MP Hotline