What’s in your lunch? Bacteria!

Amara Del Prato, Entertainment Editor

Meat, eggs, and potatoes are all considered to be generally healthy foods, but packing them for lunch and bringing them to school may decrease their nutritional value at best ー and at worst, be downright dangerous.
Certain foods that are packed in unrefrigerated lunch bags become susceptible to bacterial growth if kept warm for long enough, and with the summer heat, backpacks are at just the right temperature for this occurrence. With these warm conditions, bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus and Listeria monocytogenes can release toxins in a surprisingly short amount of time.
“When contaminated food is left out more than two hours at room temperature, Staph aureus begins to grow and will produce a toxin,” Nancy Stehulak said in an article on the Ohio State University website titled “Staphylococcus aureus: A Problem When Food Is Left Out Too Long.”
Early lunch at Bear Creek begins at 10:28 AM, which is about four hours after school begins. By this time, bacteria have had twice the required time to fester and put students at risk for getting a foodborne illness. The side effects of getting this kind of illness include vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea, according to a Healthline article titled “Food Poisoning.”
“[There are] over 240,000 cases of Staph aureus each year in [the United States], and… 100% of the cases are caused by eating food contaminated with the toxin produced by the bacteria,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on its website.
However, Bear Creek Biology teacher Kim Forbis says that these bacteria may not actually be accumulating as fast, due to the cooler temperatures in classrooms.
“Classrooms are controlled pretty well, and if we have a broken air conditioner, they’re usually right on top of it,” Forbis said. “The kids carry their lunches with them into all the air-conditioned classrooms, so I don’t think you would have much of a problem.”
Before lunch, students spend more time inside classrooms than outside, so the bacteria do, in fact, have less time to produce toxins that could make students sick.
However, even if packed lunches are kept relatively cool, students may still be increasing their risk of infection by practicing unhygienic habits while packing their lunch. For example, making a sandwich with unwashed hands can contribute to the spreading of bacteria onto the food.
Bacterial infections in packed lunches could also be the unknown cause of seemingly random cases of food poisoning that students occasionally suffer from.
“The exact number of Staph aureus cases that occur each year is hard to determine because many people attribute their illness to a virus or flu,” Stehulak said in her article on Staph aureus.
To be safe, students can pack their lunches in insulated bags to keep their food cool, or they could choose to pack more foods that are less susceptible to increased bacterial growth. Bagels, whole wheat bread, and granola bars are all healthy alternatives.