I know September is almost over because Christmas merchandise is beginning to nudge its way into retail spaces. But just because Food Safety Education Month is nearing its end, it doesn’t mean the educating is finished.

Earlier this month I spoke with USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Mindy Brashears about school lunch food safety and how the responsibility for it is in the hands of everyone from students to school board members. The people packing lunches, often known as parents, also have a fair share of the responsibility when it comes to school lunch safety.

So, for much of our conversation Brashears, a mother her self talked about the basics of safely packing lunches. 

No matter how much a kid likes the cartoon character on the outside, what matters more is how the lunch bag or box is made. No matter how healthy the food is when you put it in the lunch bag or box if it isn’t kept at the proper temperature it is dangerous.

“You must use an insulated container,” Brashears said. “No paper bags. There should also always be two ‘cold sources’ when you are packing perishables.”

Cold sources can include being frozen water or juice that will be melted for drinking by lunchtime. Reusable freezer packs can provide another cold source. Brashears said homemade lunches can get into the temperature danger within two hours without a cold source. That drops to one hour if the lunch box is outdoors.

When packing hot foods, similar rules apply. Brashears said keeping hot foods hot also requires insulated lunch gear. You can give thermos bottles a performance boost by preheating them with boiling water before filling them with chili, soup, cocoa, etc.

But keeping the food in the proper temperature zone is only part of the equation. A crucial variable is one that needs to be taught early and often and practiced by parents, students, teachers, cafeteria staff and school board members — handwashing.

Brashears said ideally schools would be providing students time and facilities to wash their hands before snacks and meals. I told her from my experience and observation, handwashing isn’t happening nearly as often in schools as it should be. 

Her tip to help minimize the number of pathogens catching a ride to your child’s gut at lunchtime is to pack disposable hand wipes in with the food. There’s no way to know if the child uses them, but if the danger and generally yucky nature of germs are stressed early and often, kids are more likely to clean their hands before they eat.

Although Brashears wouldn’t pick up a club and join me in bashing local and state school boards for failing to mandate handwashing education and opportunities, the USDA’s top food safety official did say the message about clean hands cannot be repeated often enough. She cited scientific research that has found 98 percent of people don’t wash their hands properly, despite educational efforts.

“We’ve had out consumer educators out there almost 20 years” on this topic, Brashears told me. “Now we are working with FDA on Food Safety Education 2.0 to get the behavior changes we need. … There is a whole group out there that isn’t getting the message.”

To change the behavior changes necessary to improve safety, Brashears would like a little help from her friends — specifically, she would like to see celebrities and sports role models step up to help with public service announcement campaigns.

She’s right, it would be great for celebrities and sports figures step up and lend their voices to all kinds of beneficial causes. But we don’t have to wait for them to address the food safety aspects of handwashing in schools. All we need is a little action from local and in some cases state school boards.

So I challenge the elected officials who are charged with setting curriculums and bell schedules in public schools across the land to figure out how to make handwashing happen. 

I think a good start would be to work the topic into the existing curriculum such as health and science lesson plans. No new learning models or textbooks needed — the USDA, CDC, and FDA all offer educational materials, as does the Handwashing for Life Institute.

Next, the use of the hours in the school day must be tweaked so there are a few minutes for students to wash their hands. In elementary schools, the handwashing should be observed by adults to make sure it’s effective.

It’s not complicated and it will make a difference. 

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