Food Safety in School Cafeterias

The big yellow busses are chugging around the city again, filled with kids eager to get back to school to meet their new teachers, hang out with their old friends, and eat their lunch in the familiar cafeteria.  Being a former educator, I often miss the energy and excitement that comes with the beginning of a new school year. One thing I never thought much about was the significance of making sure that all these students had safe, healthy meals to eat.

Feeding a school full of children is not a job to be taken lightly. School nutrition directors, a job I didn’t even know existed, work hard to serve healthy and nutritious meals to children in school cafeterias every day. And it’s not only about lunch. Since food plays a large part in contributing to a student’s learning and well-being, schools across the nation are finding ways to serve meals that meet the needs of their students including breakfast, mid-morning snacks, and after school snacks.

A federally-assisted meal program was established under the National School Lunch Act in 1946 to help plan safe, nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. Each school’s program must be based on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) principles. According to the HACCP website, “HACCP is a systematic preventive approach to food safety from biological, chemical, and physical hazards in production processes that can cause the finished product to be unsafe, and designs measurements to reduce these risks to a safe level.” The requirements for this program provide school nutrition directors with an outstanding foundation for food safety.

Foodborne illness isn’t only a risk for adults, there is a large risk for it in schools and it can have a damaging effect on children. According to fifty percent of the 42,000 annual salmonella infections are infants and school-age children.

But the school isn’t the only source providing food to students. Many students bring bag lunches and it is just as important to consider two important aspects of food safety when preparing and packing a lunch for a student: food preparation and food temperature. While preparing lunch, be sure to use separate cutting boards for fresh produce and meat, and cook foods to the correct temperature using a food thermometer.

To ensure the food stays at a safe temperature It is important to use an insulated lunch box, not just a paper bag and include two cold sources. A fun tip I learned from the USDA website is that you can use a frozen water bottle or juice box as one of the cold sources, and by lunch time the water or juice is thawed and ready to drink.

As someone who, as a student, survived both school lunches and lunches from home, I now recognize the extreme importance of food safety in both situations. When students regularly eat healthy meals, they are more focused in the classroom. Ensuring these meals are safe is critical to classroom success. Not only can unsafe food cause health issues, it can force students to miss school. As a teacher, I found that attendance in class was a high predictor of my students’ performance, so creating a culture committed to food safety creates a culture conducive to effective learning.