The noise in the school cafeteria sounded like a roller coaster line at an amusement park. The children were excited to be out of class for their 25 mins. respite for lunch. As I wait for my daughter, I noticed the familiar long line at the cafeteria counter. A lot has changed in last 30+ years in the area of school lunches. Children can choose from a variety of foods, they can select one (or more) of several beverage options, and they use a school credit account instead of cash (Don’t even get me started about teaching kids to rely on credit in 1st grade!). One of the changes to school lunches that seems to be invaluable is the importance of the date codes and freshness dates on almost every item on their trays.
In the fiscal year 2014, there were more than 5 billion lunches served in the United States.1 Of those 5 billion lunches, 64% were connected to the federal free lunch program.2 The statistics regarding school lunches show a steady increase year after year on the number of children who are eating school lunches instead of packing a lunch. When I was a child, I carried around my Incredible Hulk metal lunchbox that also doubled as my matchbox car collection carrier. By the end of the week, there was no telling what was in that lunch/car carrier that I called a lunchbox. Some days, I had no idea what the leftovers were, I just knew that we couldn’t afford to by lunches every day, so if I wanted to eat, I’d have to pack my lunch.
As I sat on the tiny stools at my daughter’s lunch table I looked around to see what the kids were eating. Most were eating lunches provided by the school. You could quickly see who had the standard lunch or the “upgrade” lunch. No matter if a child was receiving a free or reduced lunch or they paid full price, I noticed a several similarities right away.
First, milk is still the standard drink. Both the chocolate and white milks has date codes on them. However, 3 out of 5 kids at our table said their milk was frozen and were unable to drink it by the end of the lunch period. That’s not the end of the world, but it’s disappointing that the school didn’t seem to care. Second, everyone had a sealed fruit of some kind- applesauce, peaces, pears, etc. All of that fruit had date codes on them as well. Third, the meat (if you want to call it that) and the veggies looked like they were some version of a thawed frozen food- all of which have date codes on their containers in the freezer.
Why all of these codes? Of course, it make it easy for the kitchen staff to see what’s still edible and what needs to be tossed. More importantly, these codes help the manufacture track their products for recall purposes. One recall in Feb 2015 was identified as causing 60 children in three states allergic-style reactions. The swift recall helped protect other school systems and children from potentially harmful allergic reactions.4
Implications For Consumers
First and foremost, go have lunch with your kids. You’re making memories, building trust, and having fun when you go to the cafeteria. They won’t be young long! Second, understanding date coding on products is a relativity new skill for many people. Most of the time, simply searching for the inkjet code or stamped code on an item will reveal the suggested Use By date. There are other codes on most items, but they are usually for internal use by the manufacturer and are just gibberish to consumers. Third, teach your kids to look for date codes whether your children pack a lunch or eat a school lunch. There is nothing like cracking open a carton of milk only to discovery you needed a fork to eat the lumpy stuff inside. Looking at the date code could prevent a spoiled food from ruining one’s entire lunch. Date codes are there to read, take a moment while shopping and while preparing foods to find the date code. If there is no date code, contact the manufacture and request the date the item was packaged.
Implications For Industry
School lunches are big business! In 2014, the cost of commodities for school lunches exceeded $16.4 billion.3 Items that mostly provided for school lunch programs include” fruit, vegetables, milk, boxed snacks, breads (rolls, buns, etc.), frozen meats, frozen pizza, desserts, and more. All of these items must have reliable coding on them to ensure freshness and quality. Poorly printed coding can jeopardize confidence in a manufacture and possible loss of contracts. Manufactures, food packers, and food distributors must be able to have clearly printed codes on the items they sell and distribute.
Most companies what to do the right thing by issuing a recall if something is found to be a health hazard. Sometimes the recalls are voluntary others are mandatory. If the codes are smudged, poorly printed, or missing altogether the health of dozens or even thousands of children are at risk. No company wants to take on the risk of bad publicity of children or become ill due to their products. So the food industry has developed certain standards to help facilitate the prompt delivery of foods for schools and, if needed, immediate recall procedures.
SSI Packaging Group has been meeting the needs of food manufactures for decades. They are experts on ink jet coding, laser coding, case coding, and industrial packaging. SSI realized the need to be able to not just print these valuable codes, but also that these items needed to be able to be tracked with surgical precision so they invented the pakTru traceability system.
pakTru traceability, combined with quality ink jet coding, laser coding, or quality labeling systems, help ensure that products are accurately delivered within necessary guidelines. pakTru is a fully owned subsidiary of SSI Packaging, a provider of coding and marking solutions for over 40 years. SSI Packaging has been providing superior customer service and exceptional solutions-driven value to their many clients and is proud to expand their products to include pakTru. More information can be found at www.pakTru.com and www.ssipackaging.com.