Hiram College

Every parent wants to send their child off to school with a nutritious, healthy lunch, but exactly how healthy is the lunch box it’s packed in?

That is the question Hiram students and professor of biology Brad Goodner set out to determine this month, as they partnered with WEWS-TV5 in Cleveland to take samples from the lunch containers of about 150 elementary school children in three different Northeast Ohio schools. The segment aired Sept. 27, 2012 on the station’s 11 p.m. broadcast.

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Students sampled lunch containers at Eastview Elementary in Avon Lake, Arthur Road Elementary in Solon and Highland Drive Elementary in Brecksville between September 4-11.

The sampling focused on culturable bacteria and other microbes which represent roughly 1 percent of what is actually present. Goodner and his students identified individual bacterial colonies based on growth on different media, microscopic examination of cells, biochemical tests and DNA analysis of specific genes.

Many of the bacteria they found had come from human skin, which was expected. Also, many of the bacteria and a few yeast and molds were soil or plant-associated, which makes sense if one puts a lunchbox on the ground or places fresh fruit or veggies on the lunchbox. A few are members of the enteric bacteria family, the group that includes E. coli and Salmonella.  While the group didn’t isolate E. coli or Salmonella specifically, some others in this group can be potential pathogens. These organisms are found in soil, but they may come from fecal contamination if one doesn’t wash up properly after using the bathroom.

The group also compared results between boys’ and girls’ lunchboxes, finding that bacteria is not a boy thing or a girl thing; microbes can be anywhere:

The following is recommended, based on their findings:

  • Think about where you put down your lunch box – whatever is there is now on your box
  •  When something spills on the outside of your lunch box, wash it off
  • Once a week, clean the outside of your lunch box with a disinfectant wipe