What's in the bag?

Kids are carrying prepackaged lunches these days

Kids are carrying prepackaged lunches these days

August 22, 2007|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

Even as more students opt for school lunches, the brown bag still has its fans, said Gary Dodds, supervisor of food and nutrition services for Washington County Public Schools.

Prepackaged nosh, good ol' PBJ and last night's leftovers represent a cross section of typical brown-bag lunches these days.

So said the Tri-State-area school personnel - food service directors, teachers and principals who have monitored the cafeteria aisles and have stories - who dished on what kids are really carrying in their sacks.

And speaking of sacks, our lunch guides tell us that very few lunch bearers (they call them "packers") actually carry them any more. Even plastic, cartoon lunchboxes are pass. Instead, kids are carrying more durable nylon sacks.

But it's what's on the inside that counts. And when it comes to what's inside kids' lunches, mom's crustless PBJ might be losing ground to ready-made, store-bought lunches, our lunch guides said.


"The biggest thing is the Lunchables," said Matthew Semler, principal at Hagerstown's Winter Street Elementary School, referring to the prepackaged lunch product Oscar Mayer started making in the late 1980s.

Lunchables also are big at Mowery Elementary School in Waynesboro, Pa., said Sherian Diller, principal and the Waynesboro Area School District's director of elementary education.

While principals stopped short of weighing the nutritional merits of such lunches, they did say that they generally like to see parents send their students to school with healthier lunches.

"I actually had a child whose mom would send her in with buttered bread," said Paul Tyson, principal of Hedgesville (W.Va.) Elementary School, adding that he's also seen students come to school with empty lunchboxes.

According to school staff and supervisors interviewed for this story, such cases have been rare, but the staff has been known to discreetly replace an empty lunch pail or a woefully unhealthy meal with a school-made lunch.

Outside of the Lunchables and sandwiches, Tyson said he's seen students bring in leftover pizza and Chinese food.

Then, there are the students whose lunches skew toward berhealthy.

"I also had a girl who brought in a Thermos full of peas every day," Tyson said.

As for who's bringing in the lunches, it's usually kids who are new to eating in the cafeteria or ones who don't like cafeteria food, period, said Sara Yost, a first-grade teacher at Mowery Elementary.

"It's all about knowing your kid's comfort level," Yost said. "Some kids might be freaked out by the lunch line."

What to do about a child's food allergies ...

Parents must be proactive about informing schools about their children's food allergies, Tri-State-area principals and food service supervisors said.

Food allergies can be a cause of death or anaphylaxis - a severe reaction characterized by a drop in blood pressure, upper airway constriction and severe wheezing - according to information from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a branch of the National Institutes of Health. The only ways to manage food allergies are to avoid trouble foods and to treat the reaction caused by exposure to the food.

Principals from schools in Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania said they rely on parents to inform the school staff of their children's allergies, information that is typically relayed to the school nurse.

The nurse then tells the student's teacher and informs cafeteria staff of the food allergy.

In Maryland, school systems set their own policies for handling food allergies, said Carol Fettweis, section chief of school nutrition for the Maryland State Department of Education.

Under certain conditions, public schools that participate in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs must accommodate children whose doctors said they require special dietary needs, Fettweis said.

Embly said parents seeking more information about food allergies should contact The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, a Fairfax, Va.-based nonprofit organization, by calling 800-929-4040 or going online at

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