Amelia Freidline, copy editor
Amelia Freidline, copy editor

Food waste is increasingly being recognized as a major problem in the U.S., with the Environmental Protection Agency estimating that 35 million pounds of it wind up in landfills or incinerators every year.

Part of why it’s such a problem is that it affects every stage of the supply chain, from growers who can’t or don’t harvest all of their crops, to retailers battling shrink and unsold product, to foodservice providers pitching scraps and leftovers, to individuals and families throwing moldy blueberries or browning lettuce in the trash.

One area where food waste is particularly tricky is in schools.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s study of school plate waste under current nutrition standards is ongoing, but its report from 2002 says 12% of calories served to students through the National School Lunch Program ended up in the trash.

Whether school food waste is up or not after the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 seems to depend on your viewpoint or what type of food your school district serves.

The Packer’s National Editor Tom Karst reported on an early March study from the Harvard School of Public Health that examined four low-income schools in urban areas before and after the nutrition rules took effect in 2012.

According to the study, students increasingly selected fruits and vegetables after the new standards required them to do so, and the rate of plate waste did not increase.

However, they still threw away up to 75% of the vegetables and 40% of the fruit they selected.

That’s a problem.

An April 1 story in the Los Angeles Times reports that students in the Los Angeles Unified school district pitch at least $100,000 worth of food each day.

Writer Teresa Watanabe cites data from a 2013 study of 15 Utah schools by Cornell University and Brigham Young University that suggests the extra produce served to kids under USDA’s guidelines costs school districts nationally an estimated $5.4 million a day.

Of that amount, $3.8 million winds up in the trash, Watanabe says.

That’s also a problem.

Don’t get me wrong — I think it’s important that schools serve their students healthful meals that include fruits and vegetables. Harvard’s study shows some progress in getting kids to actually eat the produce options in their lunches, and increasing numbers of cafeteria salad bars and school gardens across the country can help expose students to unfamiliar fruits and vegetables.

We seem to be headed in the right direction, slowly but surely.

But until student produce acceptance becomes the norm (and cafeterias stop serving mystery meat), what’s to be done about all that food that winds up in the trash?

Some schools are already exploring one solution.

A June 22 article in The New York Times relates the development of New York City’s school composting program, which was started two years ago by parents on the city’s Upper West Side and has spread to 230 schools in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island.

The program is expected to be in all five of the city’s boroughs this fall, reporter Al Baker writes, and eventually include all of its schools.

When they’ve finished lunch, students sort their refuse out into bins for garbage, recyclables and food scraps or uneaten food. The food is then sent to composting operations in New York or Delaware, where it’s layered with wood chips and begins the months-long process of becoming compost, which the city can then sell, Baker says.

Participating schools generated 1,400 tons of waste food from September to March, according to the article. That’s 200 tons a month not going into a landfill. Let’s hope that amount will keep decreasing — and that kids will eat more of their food in the first place.

Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago schools also have composting programs. Maybe someone needs to introduce the idea in L.A.

One recurring theme in school food coverage from across the country was taste. High school students in Los Angeles complained about sour apricots in April, and elementary school kids in New York turned up their noses at green-tinged bananas.

I’m sure the majority of schools aren’t serving underripe or overripe fruits and vegetables, but to me this underscored the importance of produce education for kids and foodservice providers alike.

Of course it’s going to be impossible to serve hundreds of students with bananas ripened to their individual preferences, but if growers and suppliers can keep school foodservice companies and workers aware of what fruits and vegetables are best to serve at what times of year, and how to keep that produce in an optimum condition at schools, then maybe cafeteria workers will find themselves with more produce eaten and less thrown away.

In an ideal world, anyway. For now, there’s always compost.

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.