When a child can’t finish all of his or her lunch at school, sometimes they save it for the bus ride home, a move that food and health professionals say could be fatal.
The danger zone is when food sits at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees, said Dr. Richard Raymond, USDA under secretary for food safety. And since it’s back-to-school time, Raymond wants children and their parents to know how to pack a foodborne illness-free lunch. One easy thing to remember, he said, is to keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot.
“I like to take a juice box or a water bottle and freeze it [and put it in my lunch bag],” said Raymond. “That way, I have a cold drink that also kept my food safe.”
Raymond and John Emerson, the regional executive chef for Wegmans grocery stores, gave a demonstration on safe food handling Friday, Aug. 18, at the Wegmans in Fairfax. Children from the David R. Penn Community Center took a field trip to the store to watch Raymond and Emerson talk about packing safe lunches. When asked what their favorite foods were, many children said pizza or macaroni and cheese. One safe lunch bag item is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, said Emerson, because none of the ingredients need to be keep hot or cold to prevent bacteria from growing. As a safe practice though, Emerson said all foods should be kept hot or cold.
“If you can’t keep it cold at school, throw it away,” said Emerson. “Moms and dads, don’t make more than you think they’ll eat.”
ANOTHER WAY to keep lunches cold is to buy insulated lunch bags, said Raymond. They are usually sufficient enough to keep foods cold until lunchtime, and adding a gel pack or frozen water bottle really keeps things cold, said Raymond.
At Wegmans, Emerson showed the children how all of the foods kept out on display are sitting on ice or on special heating apparatuses. Lisa Picard, spokeswoman for the USDA, said the grocery store chain is “a tremendous partner in food safety messaging.” The topic of safe lunches is extremely important to send to children, said Picard, because they really do retain some of the information and will relay it at home. Children will say things like “mom, did you wash your hands,” said Picard, “and that’s really important.”
As far as knowing when to eat something or not, both Raymond and Emerson agree that if there’s any question about a food being sour or rotten, avoid eating it no matter what. Many times a food that has sat in the danger zone can appear to be fine, and even smell fine, when bacteria are really lurking. Any food in the danger zone for two hours or longer should be automatically thrown away, said Raymond.
“If you have to smell it, you shouldn’t be eating it,” said Raymond.
“When in doubt, throw it out,” said Emerson.
DOUBLING UP on brown bags provides some extra insulation, said Emerson, so parents who do not have fancy insulated lunch boxes for their children should at least double brown bag it. To make sure children aren’t eating dangerous leftovers on the bus ride home or anytime later in the day, Emerson said to pack only the amount they will actually eat at lunchtime. If children absolutely need to snack on something by the day’s end, include a non-perishable snack like a granola bar or chips. That way, children won’t be tempted to eat the food that has been sitting at dangerous temperatures all afternoon, said Raymond.
“My lunch already has the cold box,” said John Nguyen, 8.
The children barely sat still during the demonstration, but some of them did prove they retained some of the information. One boy, Andy Estrada, 8, said he learned not to eat his leftovers after they've been sitting out too long. John Nguyen said he learned that a chef's hat has 110 folds, representing 110 ways a true chef knows how to make eggs, according to Emerson.
After picking up goodie bags full of safe food handling tips and tools, such as thermometers and oven mitts, Austin Holland, 6. said the program was “great.”