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.