It’s Not the Germs that Scare Me, it’s the Studies

It was about a week ago now that the shocking news broke: There might be BACTERIA in your child’s school lunch!  And, no, not the one the school serves up in the hot food line — the lunch YOU’VE packed and sent from home.  That’s right.  YOUR turkey and cheese with the crusts cut off is a silent killer.

In case you couldn’t tell, I don’t think much of this news.

I know, I know.  Foodborne illness is not to be taken lightly.  We don’t want anybody to get food poisoning, especially little kids; and if there’s something we can do to avoid it, then we should absolutely take the necessary precautions.  I certainly don’t advise going totally old-school and shoving a wax-paper-wrapped tuna salad sandwich and a thermos of lukewarm milk into a paper sack, then letting the whole thing sit in a locker or cubby for several hours — though I can’t resist pointing out that I, along with pretty much every other kid I knew, ate lunches like that for years and didn’t have any ill effects (not that we were aware of, anyway).  We know better now, right, parents? 

Well.  Do we?  I guess that’s the question people are asking, now that this study has come out raising all kinds of concerns about the food safety savvy of millions of lunch-packing parents.  Do we really know better?  Are people really taking the necessary precautions to keep their kids’ lunches at the correct temperatures before serving?  And are kids truly in danger if we aren’t?

It’s funny how something as seemingly innocuous and favorable for public health can raise people’s hackles.  (Mine included.)  Over at — where else — The Lunch Tray, a post on this topic generated over 50 comments.  FIFTY.  The debate actually started to get a bit heated, and finally, one of the commenters pointed out that it seemed like people were taking things a tad too personally.  At that point, I stopped, mid-comment — yeah, I’ve got four or five contributions to that discussion on the thread for the world to see — and thought, She’s right.  What in the world is so irksome to me, and to all the rest of these people, about somebody telling us that we need to toss an extra ice pack into our kids’ lunchboxes?

As I’ve pondered this question, I’ve come to the realization that it’s not the extra ice pack that bugs me.  It’s deeper than that.  And no, I’m not going to pull out the “Nanny State” argument, because I find that whole notion absurd.  If it’s really the correct thing to do, from a health and safety standpoint, I don’t mind somebody wagging their finger in my face a bit and telling me that I need to do a better job of making sure my kids don’t end up with a mysterious 24-hour “stomach bug” after eating my improperly packed lunch.  That’s not an infringement on my rights; that’s a service to me and my kids, really, and I’ll be the first to admit that even in the midst of being a little incensed about this “news item” I mentally checked over the boys’ recent lunches in my head and wondered whether the refrigeration at their school was doing a good enough job, or if I should be a little more conscious.  (I’m coming down on the side of the fridge on this one, though I’ll admit the hot lunches I sometimes send in their Thermos containers are worrying me a tad more.)

No, it’s not that I mind being told what to do.  What I do mind, though, is the insinuation that parents NEED to be told what to do; and further, the panic over what schools should or should not be told to do (now we want to make noises about putting refrigeration for all those packed lunches into every school?  Seriously?); and even further, the sheer lack of NECESSITY driving it all.

The obvious irritation here is clearly what a commenter on The Lunch Tray, Viki, called “a slap at parenting.”  As if parents don’t have enough to worry about, what with sunscreen and good preschool programs and the “right” extracurriculars (or the right NUMBER) and the debate over cell phones and limiting screen time and checking for ticks and reading aloud for the exact perfect number of read-aloud minutes per evening and being overprotective or not protective enough and…PHEW.  Sorry, I was too busy having a panic attack and running downstairs to be sure the boys were still breathing in their beds to finish the thought.

As if we don’t have enough “expert advice” about pretty much everything, in this day and age, we’re adding to an already hot button issue by taking aim at the home-packed lunch.  For most of us, I think, the lunch issue has already been a thorny one, which we’ve negotiated, battled, and ultimately made some peace with — first resolving the question of “buy or bring?” and then moving along to “bring what?” before reaching some compromise that makes us feel okay about what we’re sending our kids out the door with each morning.  (This packed-lunch territory is different for everyone, but probably lies somewhere between “I packed frozen Tater-Tots to keep the leftover hot dogs cold” and “I hope little Sally eats all her organic seaweed salad and tofu stir-fry today, because I don’t want her trading her math answers for Twinkies again.”)

So we finally get to that place of compromise, whatever it is, and we get into the groove of putting together SOMETHING of nutritional value each morning, and suddenly we’re brought to a screeching halt by the revelation that someone has tested the temperatures (not the bacteria levels, mind you) of some lunches somewhere in the country, and has determined on the basis of those tests that we are liable to give little Sally diphtheria or some such thing with that seaweed, if she actually eats it.  Prompting, in me and in some other parents I know, the rousing chorus: “OH COME ON.  Can’t we catch a freaking break?”

The science behind it all, by the way, is a little incomplete — okay, so the lunches were a bit too warm or too cold, which means there MIGHT be bacteria in them, but nobody knows for sure; and nobody’s talking about whether or not this is any greater or less of a likelihood than it has always been, since the evolution of lunch pails and brown bags changed the face of school lunches.  So in reality, we don’t know ANY more about the possible safety of a packed lunch than we ever did, but now there’s been some sort of study, so it has to make the “Today Show” morning line-up.  And here’s where things really fall apart, for me.

On that particular program, a cheerful lineup of “safe alternatives” was trotted out: aseptic milk, tuna sealed in vacuum pouches, mixed nuts, and dry cereal.  Fruits and vegetables, sure, but ONLY if they weren’t cut up or peeled in any way, because breaking their skin might make them vulnerable to the dreaded bacteria.  The suggestion to pack your child’s lunch as if you were “going hiking” grated on my ears.  Trail mix and a whole orange for a preschooler or young grade-school child?  Besides the obvious issues with nuts, who’s going to peel the orange for them?  And how appealing is a container of dry Cheerios and some aseptic milk going to be, day in and day out, when the other kids are chowing down on the cafeteria “pizza” and “burgers?”

No.  No, no, no.  That is NOT the only solution.  I refuse to believe that we lunch-packing parents have to resort to bunker rations to be able to keep our kids from getting food poisoning.  My common sense tells me that CAN’T be the case.   And there, my friends, there is the real problem.

Common sense.  If you’ve got any — and I know readers of this blog do, and in abundance — this whole flap about bacteria lurking in every Thermos of tomato soup just feels so UNNECESSARY.  The world is falling down around our ears, people, in a variety of ways, and we’re going to make a big honking deal about PACKED LUNCHES?  THAT’S what is supposed to be keeping us up at night?

Look, I’m not going to get all political or anything here — I’ll avoid all talk of the economy, wars, famine, disease, etc.  But even just in the realm of talking ONLY about school lunches and food policy in America, the possibility that my son’s lunch might be a couple of degrees off the mark by this study’s standards is still somewhere around the fiftieth concern on my list.  In other words, it doesn’t even REGISTER.  And it SHOULDN’T.  I’m sorry, but until all children in this country have daily, reliable access to food that truly nourishes their brains and bodies and isn’t pumped full of chemicals or sweeteners to make it resemble something edible, I’m not going to worry about whether or not cutting up my kid’s strawberries may have made them a breeding ground for some mysterious foodborne illness.

Are we really so lacking in priorities?  When we make every single possible worry into a media event, we obscure the real problems; and when we dart around from study to study, throwing up red herrings of parental panic, we cease to focus on any one substantive issue for long enough to actually DO anything about it.  Making headlines with research like this only diverts our attention from the really scary stuff — like the antibiotic-resistant bacteria that actually WAS present in all that Cargill ground turkey, which, by the way, could easily have ended up on school lunch trays being served up to kindergartners.  Yeah, that’s right, there truly could have been killer bacteria in some kid’s lunch this school year.

We’re such a nation of worrywarts, at this point, that we can’t unite around common concerns.  How could we?  There are as many things to worry about, we’re reminded daily, as there are households in America.  What’s important to me might not be important to you, or at least not after tomorrow, when some “expert” will tell you that the filtered water you’re pouring into your kids’ stainless-steel water bottles might contain some exotic microbe you’ve never heard of.  Then you’ll be off fighting the “microbe-free water” fight, while I’m still fighting the “no-CAFO-meat-in-lunches” fight, and somebody else across town is fighting the “bring-back-my-chicken-nuggets-and-keep-yer-government-hands-off-my-Big-Gulp” fight. 

We’re being slowly driven mad, and divided and divided and divided and divided by all these shiny new issues that capture our imaginations and our hearts as people who want to do the best for our kids.  But you know what matters?  Bottom line?  What matters is our ability to use our BRAINS and our HEARTS to decide what is best for all those children.  To use common sense and reasoning again, to truly examine the big picture and find the real issues and address them as a unified nation without coming up with more distractions to throw on the heap.  Haven’t we got a big enough mess to solve, right here in our schools and our cafeterias, without borrowing extra trouble?  If we keep listening to every new study, every new concern out there, instead of tuning in and listening to our hearts and minds, I’m afraid we may never solve anything.  And that, friends, is what keeps me up at night, after studies like this hit the airwaves.  That, and the whole idea of aseptic milk.

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8 Responses to It’s Not the Germs that Scare Me, it’s the Studies

  1. Liz says:

    And, personally, I’m beginning to wonder if the focus of the media on all of these bone-headed studies and ideas, is a distraction from the companies and policies that are REALLY poisoning our environment, our people and our food. Packing some cut strawberries in a lunchbox doesn’t even make that list. NOT to be paranoid, but will the next study be about why school-prepared lunches are better for your child, sponsored by Cargill?

    • You’re not the first person I’ve heard voice that concern. I must say, I’m not that far along the road, but you’re right that it does at least have that unintended effect — making people think more about the little things than the big things. I do think there are quite a few people in the school lunch camp who really do believe that they are better-equipped to provide a “nutritious” lunch for children than many parents are.

  2. Liz says:

    Love this article. I’m also sick of the panic thrust of the media these days. Just to date myself, when I was in elementary school we went home for lunch. Imagine.
    In junior high school, I used to freeze yogurt the night before and it would be defrosted by the time lunch came around, so I could avoid the smelly, disgusting food the school served. I never got sick from the yogurt, the school food is another story.
    If we keep sterilizing the environment that kids live in, pretty soon they won’t have healthy immunity to anything. One’s immune system needs a little exposure in order to build up immunity; that’s why my husband, supposedly allergic to dogs from childhood, can now live with and sleep with three of them (I thank whatever king invented the king-size bed), without an asthma attack. He got used to them, his body built up a tolerance. I’m not suggesting that we throw kids into a cesspool of bacteria and viruses, but a little common sense and moderation (not the media, that’s too much to ask) would go a long way. Oh, and the only things I have ever really gotten sick from eating: leftover rice from Chinese food (kept in the fridge) and stuffed lobster in a restaurant (which kept me off lobster for about four years). Recommend people throw out the rice and cook lobster at home or order it steamed/boiled. See? Common sense and moderation, amazing stuff.

    • You’re so right about the sterile environments we’ve created for children. When I was growing up, honestly, we didn’t even have a “Wash your hands before dinner” rule, unless we were noticeably dirty. If we’d just been hanging around, doing homework, helping set the table, etc., we didn’t worry about whether or not we might have germs on our hands. It’s probably at least a small part of why my sister and I were almost never really sick.
      The only time I ever remember having food poisoning was from bacteria that got into the municipal water supply when I was in grad school. By the time they put out the “boil your water” warning, it was too late for me! All those years of room-temperature lunches, and never a problem. Common sense, indeed!

  3. Sylvia says:

    Excellent post!

  4. Viki says:

    Wonderful! May I please use “red herrings of parental panic” in my speech to incoming parents for my toddler class this year? Pretty please?

    You are right there are too many other things to worry about. I think it would be fun to get someone to print an article about Bento lunches and for the Today Show to pick up on that after the big hooha over lunchboxes not being cold enough. Do you think they would logically go back to the cold enough or how to reheat, or do you reheat questions. Or would the Today Show just go for the cute lunch containers and such? News is News, doesn’t really have to be logical.

    Love to read your blog. You think things out so well.

    • Yes, feel free to use the phrase freely and often! 😉
      I’m sure the Today Show will do PLENTY of back-to-school lunch segments, and I’m certain they will not make a big deal about the temperatures, either. You’re absolutely right that there’s not necessarily a thread of logic running throughout media these days. That’s one of the reasons stuff like this is so disturbing to me! Without logical follow-through of ideas, there’s just panicked discourse.
      And…thanks. 🙂 *Blush* Please keep coming back and sharing your thoughts!

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