(May 13) WASHINGTON, D.C. — A recently released government report on school lunch waste serves up numbers that parents may find appetizing — one study found that only about 12% of calories served to U.S. schoolchildren in the National School Lunch Program go uneaten.
But the government report — which surveyed data from numerous such studies — found that findings often depend on methodologies and measurement criteria and that results can vary widely.
Nevertheless, the government report indicates that efforts of students, researchers and school foodservice officials to build consumption of fruits and vegetables at school are working.
It’s also clear that fruits and vegetables are more likely than any other food to end up in the trash can. According to a study conducted in 1996 by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, about 30% of fresh vegetables and 22% of fresh fruits served to children in schools go uneaten.
Those figures comprise just a small helping of statistics gathered in “Plate Waste in School Nutrition Programs,” a report developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service and presented to the House Agricultural Appropriations Committee in March.
The report is a review of some of the most recent research done on school food waste.
$600 MILLION WASTED
Wasted food in the federal lunch program amounts to a direct economic loss of more than $600 million, according to the report, which examined data on student dietary routines and school nutritional programs from the late 1980s through the 1990s.
But the report acknowledges the inevitability of some wasted food and, indeed, concludes that 12% falls “within the normal range.”
The 12% figure is a product of the School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study, which the USDA conducted during the 1991-92 school year to measure food waste in the National School Lunch Program. That study’s chief methodology involved evaluating plates left behind and interviewing students.
But the ERS’s recent report also noted that waste varied by food type and that fruits and vegetables served to students were most likely to be discarded.
“This, of course, is a concern to nutritionists because these are foods that are underconsumed by children as it is,” said Joanne Guthrie, a nutritionist with the ERS who co-wrote the report with colleague Jean Buzby. “So this raises issues about looking at ways of improving quality and/or acceptance of food in the school lunch program.”
The report also stressed a need to implement strategies aimed at more nutritionally sound student dietary habits as a way to minimize the cost of waste — and the potential health costs for today’s students in years to come.
“Given the importance of nutrition to learning, productivity and lifetime health, the failure to meet those objectives may carry greater economic costs than the direct cost of uneaten food,” the report noted.
But not everyone with an interest in student nutrition sees the situation as dire for produce as the report seems to indicate. Some, in fact, have criticized its findings.
“When (the House Agriculture Appropriations Committee) received the report, there was some dissatisfaction that ERS delivered a report that was lacking in current research,” said Barry Sackin, staff vice president for public policy with the Alexandria, Va.-based American School Food Service Association.
Sackin said that more recent data refute the findings in the ERS report.
“Kids who participate in lunch programs (currently) are more likely to receive their nutrients,” Sackin said.
Sackin added that fresh produce consumption among students participating in federal feeding programs had increased.
“Consumption of fruits and vegetables among school lunch participants is, I think, a full portion higher than it was 10 years ago,” he said.
The ERS’s analysis of the past 15 years of literature on plate waste in the lunch program produced some general findings:
- The School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study for the 1991-92 school year found that lunch program participants waste about 12% of the calories in the food that they are served. Food waste estimates from smaller studies range from 10% to 37%, perhaps attributable to varying methodologies.
- Waste varies by food type, with salad and fresh vegetables (30%) and fresh fruit (22%) generally reported to be among the most wasted items. Cooked vegetables led the list of wasted items, at 42%. Meats (14%), breads and grains (13%) and milk (11%) were wasted least.
Although the 1991-92 USDA study found little difference in the percentage wasted of most nutrients, folate, a vitamin found primarily in fresh vegetables and fruit, had the highest waste, at 15%.
“This is consistent with the food categories generally reported to be most wasted,” Guthrie said.
SOLVING THE PROBLEM
The report conveyed several possible solutions to reducing plate waste, based on other research findings.
Prominent among the suggestions was offering a wider selection of choices, particularly among fruits and vegetables. Salad bars were listed among possible examples of an “offer vs. serve” provision in school meal programs, Guthrie said.
“Historically, children had to take the full meal under the USDA rules,” Guthrie said. “Under this provision, they can decline a maximum of two of the typical five menu items.”
On the other hand, students are not required, under such a system, to select a fruit or vegetable with their meal.
“But one thing that has been done with the offer vs. serve provision is that they started coupling it with a range of choices in the fruits and vegetables,” she said.
Another possible solution centers on scheduling lunch to follow a recess period.
When children eat lunch before recess, they’re more eager to run out and play than to finish eating, Guthrie said. “There’s consistency in the research. Only 18% of schools schedule recess before lunch. So it seems that’s a factor.”
Other possible solutions may involve widening the selection of commodities in the USDA program, specifically the inclusion of more fresh fruits and vegetables. The report also suggests that school districts might consider accessing as much locally grown produce as possible.
“It can play a role; the tricky part is it is going to have to go through some co-op (in order to have consistency and volume),” said Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Wilmington, Del.-based Produce for Better Health Foundation.
Another key element is providing students with a voice in menu content, the report noted.
“Student advisory groups offer one way to create improved menus that are acceptable to students, which would likely have some impact on reducing plate waste,” the report said.
Meanwhile, Guthrie said that the keys to enhancing student nutrition, based on her findings, seem to be information and choice.