SPECIAL REPORT: Lurking In Your Lunchbox

The lunchroom, where your kid's biggest decisions are where to sit and what to eat, but where is your kid's food coming from, the lunch line or their lunchbox?

If your student brings cold lunch, you may be surprised to know their sandwich isn't the only thing staying cool inside that Igloo. Bacteria also thrives in the dark, moist environment. So we asked, how often do you clean your student's lunchbox?

Julie Schlagenhaft is mom to a seventh grader. When we asked her how often she cleans her daughters lunchbox she responded, "We try to clean it at least once a week."

Yacob Ellias tells us he cleans his eighth grade son's lunchbox once every two weeks.

John Kruse laughed and said, "To be honest with you, I'm not sure we've ever cleaned it."

To find out just what's growing in there, NewsChannel 7 teamed up with Columbus Catholic Schools in Marshfield and collected samples from elementary, middle and high school students' lunchboxes.

Many of the students we sampled had their own ideas about what might be on their lunchboxes.

Seventh grader Tia Schlagenhaft's funny face said it all. "That's a great question. I'm not sure."

"Probably some type of bacteria, food, I don't know," sixth grader Jonah Keffer laughed.

Fourth grader Dorci Walker thought for a minute then responded, "Sometimes I think it's some dirt."

"I'm not sure," sixth grader Ryleigh McGiveron grimaced. "There's probably going to be a lot of germs."

The sampling process was simple. Using a sanitized sponge, we swabbed the handles, bottoms, insides and outsides of 19 lunchboxes chosen at random. Then, we took the samples to Dr. Roy Radcliff at the Marshfield Food Safety Lab for testing.

After a week long incubation period, we got our results. Bacteria galore. Some petri dishes even had some mold growing on them. Perhaps not surprisingly, elementary school students' lunchboxes had the most bacteria, averaging more than 1,400 bacteria per sponge. One elementary school sample had an astounding 5,600 bacteria, far surpassing what Dr. Radcliff calls the acceptable upper limit.

"Production facilities, where food is produced, would typically have an upper limit of acceptability of 100 or less," he explained.

The results of the middle school samples weren't much better. The average for the middle school was about 1,200 bacteria per sponge. The high count in this group was a sample with 5,900 bacteria. That brought our overall average to just under 1,300 bacteria per sponge.

Parents were shocked when we told them the results.

"Reaction is pretty bad," one parent said.

When we asked mom Julie Schlagenhaft if she was surprised at how many bacteria were on her daughter's lunchbox she answered, "Kind of, but I can understand that with the germs and how things grow and I guess we don't think about that."

If you think your kids' lunchboxes are the only ones susceptible to germs, think again. One adult lunchbox we tested, while not as extreme as student results, had a disturbing 130 bacteria on its sponge.

Dr. Radcliff contends not all the bacteria we collected in our samples is harmful.

"A lot of it did look like a basillas or a lactobasillas. So the type of bacteria that you would find in like yogurts or some of the yogurt bars or stuff like that."

Dr. Radcliff says the majority of the bacteria growing in our lunchboxes is a result of transfer.

"If they eat the yogurt and they throw the cup away, but they still have the spoon and they put the spoon back in their lunchbox, ya know that was in the yogurt so it could transfer," he explained.

So what's the best way to get rid of these unwelcome lunch buddies? The answer, basic hygiene. The best way to clean your, or your kid's lunchbox is by using warm, soapy water to rinse it then sanitizing it afterward with a bleach solution. Dr. Radcliff suggests a solution with a ratio of one teaspoon bleach to every gallon of water. You will get the best results if you submerge the entire lunchbox in the solution. Some lunchboxes are even dishwasher safe. Dr. Radcliff says that's also a good option if you don't want to spend every school night up to your elbows in bleach.

Parents we spoke were shocked by the results of our investigation. They tell us it will definitely be cleaning their students' lunchboxes more often.

For more information on testing, please visit Marshfield Food Safety, LLC

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