Students at Hickman High School in Columbia lobbed softball-sized oranges across the cafeteria minutes before the bell rang releasing them to class. Thanks to poor hand-eye coordination, some of the oranges ended up rolling on the floor between the tangle of students’ legs. Handfuls of celery sticks and forests of broccoli were piled into the trashcan next to full containers of peanut butter and smears of ranch dressing.
These aren’t the only items getting tossed out during lunch time. Other healthy menu items that have been introduced to cafeterias following the national lunch reform in 2012 are being dumped in the bins. The reform requires cafeterias to incorporate healthier options for kids by cutting calories and fats and capping sodium content, while bringing whole grains, fruits, and veggies to the table. But schools are finding that a lot of those healthy options end up in the trash.
A 2012 study on the plate waste produced by three elementary schools and two middle schools in Colorado showed elementary students trashed more than a third of grain, fruit and vegetable items, while middle school students left 50 percent of the fresh fruit untouched. Less than half the students ate meals that met the national meal standards for Vitamins A and C. The purpose of the study was to review the meal choices students made following the change to the National School Lunch Program and compare the nutritional value of those meals to those consumed in 2004.
Another study in 2010 found that 23.9 percent of waste created in six Minnesota schools was plate waste. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found that younger children created more food waste. At the top of the list were salad, vegetables, and fruit.
Some blame First Lady Michelle Obama for pushing strict food rules, and students took to the internet with the hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama to share pictures of their unappetizing lunches. Some of the blame for plate waste has been pushed onto the reform for introducing strict, healthy guidelines to school menus.
However, research has shown that plate waste before the reform is about the same as plate waste now, according to the USDA. A study from 2002 based on 1991-92 data found that about 12 percent of calories from school food weren’t consumed.
The Columbia Public School District doesn’t have the data to provide an exact estimate as to how much of their menu is trashed. The district does not have enough staff or resources to measure plate waste in Columbia schools, said Laina Fullum, the director of Nutrition Services for Columbia Public School District.
Jacqueline Palmer, head of the lunch staff at Hickman doesn’t see a problem with plate waste in the high school, but that’s because there is an actual wall blocking her view. The staff is busy during the lunch period ensuring each student gets a meal, cleaning the facilities as students exit, and preparing for the next lunch shift so they don’t get the chance to keep an eye on what’s going into the trash.
“We don’t go out there,” Palmer said. “I don’t actually see students throwing things away.”
For Columbia, the federal reform meant saying goodbye to student favorites like the chicken nuggets and saying hello to “all-white chicken bites” that use a whole grain breading many students aren’t used to eating.
Prior to the reform, Columbia schools were required to serve three item lunches that included an entree, a side, and a milk. Now Columbia school lunches include a meat or meat alternate such as a grilled cheese sandwich, with whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and fat-free or low-fat milk to drink. Of the five options schools are required to offer every day, students must take a minimum of three, and one of those items has to be either a fruit or a veggie, even if it means never leaving the plate before being tossed in the garbage.
“You can give kids the healthiest food in the world – doesn’t mean they’re going to eat it,” district spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark told the Missourian.
It’s not necessarily the unfamiliar taste of healthy foods that create the plate waste, but the inability for some of the students to eat the healthier options before tackling their favored parts of the meal, a director of food services said in a Pew Trusts article about plate waste.
The amount of time spent preparing the meals and the amount of time students are allotted to eat also factors into how much food is thrown out.
The Pew article reported that serving whole fruits like oranges and apples isn’t ideal as they take longer for younger students to consume. In addition to the whole fruits, Columbia schools offer fruit slices and fruit cocktails with lunch.
The same article reported that health professionals agreed school lunch periods should be extended to give students more time to chow down. It would give students time to socialize, as they are apt to do, while also allowing extra time for younger students struggling with peeling a whole orange.
Whatever may be causing plate waste in schools, district budgets will continue to take heavy blows if it doesn’t stop.
Since the new lunch rules came out, Columbia has seen a 7.24 percent drop in student participation between the 2010-11 school year and 2013-14 according to the district’s 2014 Nutrition Services Financial Update. And while income is declining, schools had new expenses, such as refrigerators.
For example, Mill Creek Elementary had to renovate its kitchen area to house the new storage, and the district has had to supply additional staff training so cafeteria workers were prepared for the menu changes.
Lunch prices also increased to make up for the increased spending on new menu items, Fullum said. During the 2010-11 school year the average cost to create a meal was $3.18, which climbed to $3.86 in 2013-14, according to the financial update.
The district has increased lunch prices in order to make up for the increasing costs of purchasing healthier menu items, Fullum said. During the 2010-11 school year middle and high school students paid $2.35 for school lunches while elementary students paid $2.10. This year middle school and high school students paid $2.70, while elementary students paid $2.45. Student lunches are subsidized close to $0.26, Fullum said.
“The federal government bit off more than it could chew,” Fullum said. “Eating healthy is not an inexpensive endeavor.”
The United States Department of Agriculture is urging school districts to reduce, recycle and recover menu items in order to cut down on food waste and relieve budget tension. A partnership between the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency launched The Food Waste Challenge to encourage best practices to everyone throughout the food supply chain.
The challenge recommends that schools decrease food waste from the source by improving methods in ordering, prepping, and storing menu items.
The USDA encourages detailed menu planning that is adaptable to change based on student preferences; cafeterias can get a better sense of what their students want by offering taste test of new items and collecting satisfaction surveys.
“They should at least have food students will eat. We don’t want students to go hungry,” Hickman senior Avery Kemp said. “I think a survey would really help.”
Communication between the cafeteria staff and the students plays an integral role; it helps cafeteria workers improve menus to fit the tastes and needs of students, and lets students know the process in which their food is handled.
Students at Hickman High School believe small changes could make a big difference in students’ attitudes about school lunches.
“If they made an effort to be transparent about the process then students wouldn’t be against school food,” another Hickman senior, Abby Fulcher, said.
Cafeteria staff can also stint food waste by limiting orders and not over-prepping items. Schools can decrease food waste by creating a more accurate ordering method that might include shorter intervals between shipments, while also slashing unnecessary items from the order by making menu items from scratch in bulk quantities, according to the challenge.
Staff can also cut down on waste by scrutinizing the order as it rolls through the door; if there’s anything wrong with the shipment, like ice crystals forming on the containers, the staff can return it to the suppliers for credit. Purchasing prepared produce is another way staff can decrease waste within the cafeteria, which will also cut prep times so they can focus on other menu items.
The Food Challenge encourages administration to get involved by scheduling recess before lunch; doing so has shown to reduce plate waste by as much as 30 percent. Extending the lunch period could also reduce food waste by one-third.
However, these methods alone won’t stop plate waste. Recovering items once they leave the kitchen has helped feed other hungry students and families through donations. Columbia schools are slowly joining other US schools to decrease food waste by incorporating a “share basket” where students can put uneaten, packaged fruit into a basket for other students to eat later.
Other U.S. schools are even more organized. Food Bus, a national organization that helps schools donate leftover items has teamed up with elementary schools to decrease food waste by providing funding and volunteers to move the unconsumed foods. Schools in New Mexico have gone as far as to recycle their food waste to provide local farmers with extra feed for livestock.
Food waste is an ongoing issue in U.S. schools, and to alleviate it, schools will have to address it one bite at a time.