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Tales of an Epidemiologist’s Lunchbox: How to Prevent Foodborne Illness during Back to School Month

Posted By Kristen Felicione, Friday, August 28, 2015
Updated: Friday, August 28, 2015

As a child, one of my fondest memories of Back to School season was picking out my new lunch box. When I got to a certain age, lunch boxes became unpopular and they were replaced by cool brown paper bags. Although I begged to switch my lunch to a more trendy paper bag, my mom insisted I continue to use a fully insulated lunch bag. Now, with my background in epidemiology, I realize my mom’s commitment to providing her children with a safe school lunch every day. School-aged children are among the most vulnerable to foodborne illness. Here’s some information on proper preparation and storage of packed lunches so you and those you pack lunches for can avoid foodborne illness this school year. As epidemiologists, you can be ambassadors for food safety during Back to School and Food Safety month and share these tips with those you care about!

The facts, because we’re all epidemiologists here

  • Approximately 1 in 6 Americans becomes a victim of food poisoning each year
  • Salmonella affects an estimated 42,000 people each year, making it the most frequent cause of foodborne illness
  • 50% of Salmonella infections occur in infants and school-age children
  • Bacteria grow most rapidly in the range of temperatures between 40 °F and 140 °F, and can double in number in as little as 20 minutes
  • Norovirus is the leading cause of severe acute gastroenteritis among children less than five years of age in the U.S. who seek medical care
    • Norovirus is a contagious virus one can acquire from an infected person, contaminated food or water, or by touching a contaminated surface
    • Norovirus is often spread in food service; it is also commonly spread in day care centers
Follow these tips to keep lunch safe and bacteria-free
  • Pack lunches containing perishable food in an insulated lunchbox or soft-sided lunch bag. Perishable foods left at room temperature for more than two hours should be discarded; perishable food can be unsafe to eat by lunchtime if packed in a paper bag.
  • If the lunch/snack contains perishable food items like lunch meats, eggs, cheese, or yogurt, make sure to pack it with at least two cold sources
    • Frozen juice boxes or water can be used as freezer packs. Freeze these items overnight and use with at least one other freezer pack. By lunchtime, the liquids should be thawed and ready to drink
  • If packing a hot lunch, like soup, chili or stew, use an insulated container to keep it hot. Fill the container with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty, and then put in the piping hot food. Tell children to keep the insulated container closed until lunchtime to keep the food hot (140 °F or above).
  • Pack disposable wipes for washing hands before and after eating. This is a step that is so often forgotten among kids.
  • After lunch, discard all leftover food, used food packaging, and paper bags. Do not reuse packaging because it could contaminate other food and cause foodborne illness.
  • Lunch meat can be refrigerated (40⁰F) for 3-5 days.

Please continue to support the public health of this nation while “off the clock” and follow the lunch safety tips. Remember to CLEAN, SEPARATE, COOK and CHILL your food.

Need more information?
You can find all of this information and more, by visiting the FSIS Web site at Or visit us online for assistance from our virtual representative “Ask Karen” at

Consumers may also call our toll-free USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline. That’s 1-888-674-6854.
Kristen Felicione, MPH, CPH writes this week’s article on behalf of the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the USDA.
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