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Choices Can Slice School Food Waste

Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media

Lunch time at Harris Bilingual Elementary School in Fort Collins, Colo., displays all the usual trappings of a public school cafeteria: Star Wars lunch boxes, light up tennis shoes, hard plastic trays and chocolate milk cartons with little cartoon cows. It’s pizza day, the most popular of the week, and kids line up at a salad bar before receiving their slice.

“Alison, que quieres? Oh, broccoli, tambien,” says Kate Kosakowski, a teacher’s assistant at the school. She gives the pigtailed kindergartner a pat on the back and places several florets on the tray. Kids speak in both English and Spanish throughout the school week at Harris. The district that includes the school, Poudre School District, serves almost 15,000 meals a day.

The salad and fruit bar is a staple of this lunchroom. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated its school nutrition standards, mandating more fruits and vegetables on students’ trays. So when one kindergartner tries to sneak past without taking a vegetable, Kosakowski swoops in.

“Oh, let’s try something new today,” Kosakowski says, grabbing a hold of the boy’s tray. “Pick one to try.”

He relents and grabs some carrots. But there’s nothing that says that picky kid has to eat what he takes. The school can provide the choices, but some kids just will not eat.

In many communities, the local school district is the largest food provider, filling thousands of hungry bellies every day. Nationwide, the National School Lunch Program feeds more than 30 million students each year. But trying to feed healthy food to some of the pickiest eaters can result in mountains of wasted food.

Food waste has always been a problem for large institutions like school districts. Studies have shown kids throw away anywhere from 24 percent to 35 percent of the food on their trays. But there was particular angst over these latest healthy lunch standards. Conventional wisdom says kids don’t like vegetables and that by mandating more veggies on trays, waste was going to go up.

Now, many schools are finding that giving kids a say in what they eat can cut down on what ends up in the trash.

“Our goal as a department and a district is to make sure the last kid has the same choices as the first in the variety and the quality, but we also don’t want to have so much food out there that it’s being thrown away,” said Craig Schneider, director of nutrition for the Poudre School District.

Conventional wisdom doesn’t give kids enough credit, Schneider says. A Harvard University study showed after the new standards went into effect kids ate better and the increased portions of fruits and vegetables didn’t cause waste to go up. A Government Accountability Office report noted that many school districts have complained about increased waste, but acknowledged a lack of data, and summarized those notions of trash cans piled high with wasted veggies as anecdotal. Few studies have been published that compare plate waste from before and after the introduction of the new standards.

The key to cutting down on waste in the lunchroom is choice, according to researchers. By allowing kids to make their own food decisions, rather than asking lunch ladies to load up trays, you disarm their pickiness.

“Food is money,” Schneider said. “So we really want to manage that cost, but also we just don’t want to be throwing away food. It’s just that simple.”

But even before the USDA’s controversial lunch and snack standards took effect, waste in schools was still a huge problem, and that continues today. A Colorado State University research team found the average high school student throws away almost a third of their vegetables. That’s a higher percentage than food wasted at home.

Credit Courtesy Stephanie Smith
A Colorado State University school food waste study found the average high school student throws away nearly a third of his/her vegetables.

“It’s really tough for the schools, because they’re dependent on their clients -- the students. And I think it’s really tough to balance healthy food with the taste preferences of the clients,” said Leslie Cunningham-Sabo, a Colorado State University nutritionist.

Food waste can vary school to school, Cunningham-Sabo says, depending on how active certain education programs are. Districts can make subtle changes with big effects on waste, she says. When some schools have inverted lunch and recess, putting play before the cafeteria, food waste was cut by 30 percent, according to a University of Southern Mississippi study. But the study found that less than 5 percent of schools put lunch after recess as of 2006.

“There’s a lot of evidence to support having recess before lunch and the kids get out there, they get to play, they get to socialize, they burn off some energy and they come in hungry for lunch,” Cunningham-Sabo said.

Other research shows healthy food marketing can change student attitudes about fruits and vegetables. Schools shouldn’t be afraid to get creative and can re-brand vegetables as things kids would actually clamor to get their hands on, says dietician Stephanie Smith. Try calling it “Super Power Cauliflower,” she says, or instead of green beans, “Laser Beans.”

“Involve the students,” Smith said. “Let them help set the menu, get them more involved, that way they have more buy-in, their school lunch participation increases and hopefully waste decreases.”

Back at the lunch room at Harris Elementary in Fort Collins, Colorado, a table of fourth-graders clean their trays before raising their hands to be dismissed from the cafeteria.

They ate everything. But we as a society usually don’t. We waste roughly 35 million tons of food a year. If consumers are really going to cut down on food waste, we’ll all have to start eating our vegetables. 

More from this series: Tossed Out – Food Waste in America

As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.