[caption id="attachment_48417" align="alignleft" width="245" caption="Sandra Harris’s eco-friendly lunch bags and boxes took off so quickly she’s playing catch-up"][/caption]

SAN RAFAEL -- Along with the flourishing food scene in the North Bay comes a sustainable way to tote and munch it.

ECOlunchboxes -- plastic-free stainless containers and cotton bags to carry them in -- are a surprise bestseller in Whole Foods, Container Stores and retail outlets across the U.S. and abroad.

“I thought I was starting a little internet business, a mom-shop,” said founder Sandra Ann Harris, who designed the products for her children when she couldn’t find what she wanted in the way of sustainable lunchware.

The lunch bags and boxes were a surprise hit with consumers and now Ms. Harris can’t keep up with demand.

“I’ve had to back up and start over, with a business plan and market analysis, scalability and a polished pitch for investors. It’s a lot more complicated than I expected,” she said.

Luckily her products fit the green tech profile that allowed ECOlunchboxes to become one of the first companies in Dominican University’s Venture Greenhouse incubator, so she’s not without help sorting through the complexities.

Now she’s just about ready to hit the angel circuit with her tale of lead-free, PVC-free, vinyl-free, BPA-free, no-waste bento boxes manufactured in India and Thailand -- not China -- and bags ethically-sourced directly from artisan weavers and dyers in India.

“We did some studies and can show that the average family of four, assuming three lunches go out the door, generates 4,320 pieces of trash a year, what with plastic sealable bags, yogurt containers, juice boxes, granola bar wrappings, plastic water bottles, paper napkins and bags,” said Ms. Harris.

School children alone account for 18 billion pieces of chemical and hormone-leaching trash going into landfills each year.

[caption id="attachment_48418" align="alignright" width="196" caption="Eco-friendly lunch boxes"][/caption]

A family could save $400 a year by reusing food containers, making the investment of $50 for a set -- a four-compartment box, cloth lunch bag/backpack, bamboo spork and cloth napkins -- not so hard to swallow.

“The rectangular bento box -- $19.95 -- is our best-selling lunch box,” said Jesse Wagner, housewares buyer for Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco. “And we sell a lot of lunchboxes, including other plastic-free sets.”

Ms. Harris has distributors in Denmark, Canada, Scotland, Australia in addition to retailers and distributors across the U.S.

Demand is cyclical, highest in the fall when school opens, and Ms. Harris often runs out of supplies before the year is out. Self-funded ECOlunchboxes has grown organically so far, she said.

According to Erin Urano of Sustainable Products Co., a Berkeley consultant, ECOlunchboxes should resonate with investors.

“No matter how ethical and sustainable a product is, it won’t succeed without mainstream appeal and pricing. These boxes have found a much broader customer base than the deep green set. The mainstream consumer likes them and that’s important,” she said.

For more information, visit www.ecolunchboxes.com.