Lunchroom Food Waste in 2015

Has the silver bullet to kids pitching their food been found?

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  • February 12, 2015
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We have heard a lot about food waste since the implementation of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA). Waste, aka “rejection,” of the half cup serving required by the current regulations has been the target of the naysayers who want to roll back some of the new requirements. The thing is, concern about food waste in school meals is not new, and studies about this issue are not new either. The USDA’s 1991-92 School Nutrition Dietary Assessment is still cited for the finding that 12% of calories served to students in the NSLP go uneaten. 

Though the financial loss from food waste is a valid concern, the primary focus should be the loss of nutrients to kids. In 2002, the Economic Research Service (ERS) published Plate Waste in Child Nutrition Programs, which summarized the earlier reports and other research conducted in the intervening years, and sure enough waste in the fruit and vegetable area was highest. The summary showed that girls wasted more than boys, and younger grades wasted more of their food and overall nutrients than older children. In 2010, Colorado State University studied the Thompson School District in Loveland and its results showed similar trends. Thompson’s strategy to counteract these results was to appeal to parents with the following:   

  • Ask children what they had for lunch that day to find out if they are taking fruits and vegetables with lunch
  • Review school lunch menu on the TSD website and serve some of the same fruits and vegetables at home
  • Make it a goal to try one new fruit or vegetable at home each week

Similarly, the 2002 ERS report offered the following strategies for schools: 

  • More effective use of Offer vs. Serve
  • Rescheduling lunch so that recess falls before lunch
  • Improving the quality of the meals
  • Nutrition education  

 The current era, with newer meal regulations, has not really produced anything different—there’s still food waste, money is always an issue for school food programs, and we are tasked with stretching our dollars even further as the reimbursement rates really don’t add up to the cost of production. FSDs have to strive to be efficient in procurement, in production (meals prepared versus meals served), in labor, and menu planning. Unfortunately, every step from planning to procurement, production to service, is simply not enough to roll back food waste. 

Critics claim that requiring fruits and vegetables be offered in addition to a half-cup served is causing more waste. Recently Pew Charitable Trust interviewed several districts about food waste and their recommendations echo the 2002 ERS report: lunch scheduling, education, student choice and self-service. Here is an excerpt from the PEW interviews:

Q: What is the biggest reason that students in your district throw away food? 
A: Healthier foods take longer to eat compared with chicken nuggets and French fries. Our schools have not increased the time allotted for meals, and our students are forced to start with what they want the most and throw away what they don’t have time to get to.
— Roger Kipp, director of food services, Norwood City School District (Ohio)

Waste is a key indicator that there is more work to do. It reminds us that our kids are not eating well.  So what are the top strategies to reduce food waste and increase kids’ nutrient intake? 

  1. Education: The younger the better here. This includes exposing kids to new foods, tasting new foods, learning about nutrition and health, growing food, harvesting food, and cooking food. Food service departments cannot accomplish this work on their own. Parent engagement, district education criteria, as well as Lunchroom Education must be present and persistent in order to engage students in trying new foods, especially vegetables and fruits.
  2. Time to Eat: Food service teams are upping their game, cooking more foods from scratch and offering more real whole foods from salad bars. Is 20 minutes really enough time to move from the classroom to the cafeteria line and then eat, which includes finding friends to sit with and socializing? Regardless of the age, kids need more time. Food waste and the resulting nutrient intake loss are an inevitable result. Food service teams have no control over these schedules, which are often controlled at the site level by principals.
  3. The Right Time: Numerous studies have determined that children who play before lunch eat more because they are hungrier and are ready to settle down to eat. Same issue as above—if scheduling and protocol are not determined at the district level then this strategy is spotty at best.
  4. Self-Service: Even back in 2002, researchers noted that self-selection ensured a better rate of consumption and less waste. Under the current regulations, one of the strongest strategies for reducing waste is by utilizing salad bars, which provides students with more choices, as a means to meet the vegetable sub group requirement.
  5. Real Food: Preparing foods from scratch and paying just as much attention to the service and dining environment that showcases that food can improve student consumption and reduce waste. The latest USDA blog on food waste points to the Smarter Lunchroom strategies to assess and refresh your approach.
  6. Student Choice: Balancing offering several choices and managing production levels is a big challenge for FSDs. Food service can create student engagement around tastings of new foods and trialing menu items as a standard practice. 
  7. Waste Stream Education: Schools with active waste separation, compost, and food recovery activities are educating students on the cycle of food production from dining to waste. These activities develop awareness and accountability and have been proven to reduce waste in cafeterias.

So, “No”—we still haven’t found the silver bullet for reducing food waste in schools, which isn't just a school issue by the way. In the United States, we currently waste approximately 25% of the food supply—often before it ever reaches our plates. So,  rolling back the HHFKA regulations because there is too much food waste in schools isn’t looking at the bigger picture, and it definitely is not the solution. Bottom line, it’s our responsibility to educate children about food, to feed them real whole foods, and to give them enough time to eat. These are the solutions we should be focused on—getting healthy foods into our kids and keeping nutrients out of the trash. 

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