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The researchers focused their efforts on children ages 3 to 5 who attend daycare on a regular basis, because they're at most risk for illness-causing bacteria and because these children often don't have the option of buying a lunch at the daycare center. Measuring the surface temperature of meats, vegetables, and dairy products found in 705 lunches revealed that out of 1,361 perishable food items, just 22, or 1.6 percent, were in a safe temperature range (defined as below 39.2ºF or above 140ºF). Ninety-seven percent of meats, 99 percent of dairy, and 99 percent of vegetables were not at safe temperatures.
The authors also found that refrigerators, ice packs, and thermal lunch bags didn't help. Ninety-one percent of the lunches were packed in thermally insulated bags, but the temperature measurements showed that the bags didn't maintain the proper temperature. Just 83 of the 705 lunches were kept in refrigerators at the daycare centers, and only four of the 458 items in those refrigerated lunches were cold enough. In lunches that contained at least one ice pack, just 14 out of 618 items were cold enough. Only 5 out of the 61 items packed in lunches with two to four ice packs were at a safe temperature.
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What it means
Make sure all that healthy school food you're sending from home doesn't wind up making your child sick! The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which monitors occurrence of foodborne illness in the country, doesn’t track the number of kids who get sick from home-brought lunches. But that doesn't mean kids don't get sick.
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"Just from seeing some of the school lunches brought to my school, anecdotally, I will tell you, I can't believe this stuff's not being refrigerated," says Ann Cooper, school chef, outspoken advocate for healthier school lunches. "It's a reasonable thing to be worried about." Cooper says her major takeaway from this study is "buy school lunches." But that's not an option for kids in daycare centers, and she cautions parents not to use the results from this study to resort to highly processed, shelf-stable (and sugar-, fat-, and salt-laden) packaged Lunchable-type meals. (Here are some healthy swaps for your kids favorite junk food snacks.) "My real problem with this study is that it's going to be one more way to instill fear in parents and for big agribusinesses and food companies to push more processed foods onto kids," she says.
Fortunately, there's no need to do that, says Ben Chapman, associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. Here are some tips he offers for this school year:
Talk to the daycare staff
If your child's daycare center has a refrigerator, ask how it's being used; the study authors noted that in some cases, centers had refrigerators but teachers weren't putting lunches into them until two hours after the children arrived. "Ask whether they have a refrigerator thermometer, and whether they know if the fridge is at the right temperature" Chapman adds. Refrigerated food isn't any safer than non-refrigerated food if the appliance temperature is too high. (The ideal temp is below 41ºF.)
Know how to pack a safe lunch
Buy a good lunch bag, and conduct a trial run. Even though the researchers in this study found foods inside thermally insulated lunch bags and bags with ice packs to be below safe temperatures, that's no reason to write them off, Chapman says. "The more insulated, the better." Test it at home before sending your child off to day care.
"This may sound food-safety nerdy, but this is what I plan to do," he says. "If there's a food we plan on sending with our son, we'll make it on a Saturday and try and mimic the same conditions at day care." Leave it out on the counter, says Chapman, or put it in the fridge if one will be available. Then check the bag's temperature after four hours. That way you'll know whether your bag and ice packs are working.
Invest in an ice pack: Don't assume a frozen juice box (which is what many parents were using as an "ice pack" in the study) will do the job. Invest in a good-quality, reusable ice pack. (These eco-friendly reusable ice packs are $10 for a 3-pack on amazon.com)
Be a smart packer. Along with testing your lunch bag, Chapman recommends packing the lunch the night before, putting it in the refrigerator. Add an ice pack directly from the freezer into your child's chilled lunch before it goes out. "If you're starting with something that's warm and trying to cool it down, the ice pack isn't going to work as well," Chapman notes.
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For food choices, think whole and dried. Chopped fruits and vegetables are a higher food-safety risk than whole fruits and veggies, and shelf-stable condiments, such as peanut butter, won't require refrigeration, Chapman says. (Check with the center before using peanut butter, since so many of them have peanut-allergy policies now.) He adds that dried fruits and vegetables, as well as crackers and hard (not soft) cheeses, are healthy alternatives that don't pose a real food-safety threat, regardless of temperature. Also, find out what your day care may be willing to do from a food-prep standpoint, he says. Your child may not be able to eat a whole apple, but the center may be willing to cut it up just before it's time to eat it.