Maybe Healthy School Lunches Can Actually Mean Less Waste

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It’s back to school time, which means, it’s back to the new school lunch plan under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act championed by Michelle Obama. Increased food waste has been one of the main arguments against the healthier lunch menus.  The GOP came out hard against, arguing that students are pitching their expensive, newly mandated fruits and vegetables into the trash. But Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told the New York Times, that the rule revisions have had “no effect on food waste,” which has been a weak point in schools for years.

There is no question that a tremendous amount of food gets wasted as part of school lunch.  As any parent knows, it’s not exactly easy to get kids to finish their plates at home either.  But the question with the new school lunch plan is whether more is being wasted.  And either way, how do we get more food out of the trash and into kids’ mouths?   

We need a before and after shot.

Last January, the Government Accountability Office published survey results from all 51 states, 48 of which reported that plate waste had been a challenge under the new standards. But here’s the catch. Most of those districts had not recorded plate waste prior to the standards going into effect. And of the 17 schools that the agency actually visited, none of them had tracked food waste in previous years to see if it had changed during school year 2012-2013. So although food may indeed be wasted, it’s hard to argue that the new standards have made it worse without a baseline to compare.

Plus, while the GAO witnessed students at 7 of those 17 schools throw away their fruit and vegetables, it also noted that students at the other 10 schools ate “sizable quantities” of both, “resulting in minimal plate waste.”

A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health was able to capture pre and post-implementation data, and found that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act may actually reduce food waste. Based on information from 1,030 students in 4 schools in urban, low-income districts, the HSPH study said that students discarded 75 percent of vegetables before the nutrition standards went into place and 60 percent of vegetables after. The rate for fruit (40 percent) didn’t change.

Even if the new standards haven’t triggered a stampede to the trash, the numbers are still dismal. We’re talking millions of gallons of water, millions of tons of carbon and millions of hours of human labor used for nothing. The solution, however, isn’t to feed kids only pizza and nachos. 18% of young Americans are obese as it is. We need to start asking how we can get kids to clean their (healthier) plates.

No more soggy spinach

The first problem is that lunch just doesn’t taste good. The GAO and the HSPH call this a “palatability” issue, which is official-speak for food that’s gross and blah. Schools didn’t have “as much time to focus on food palatability (because of the short implementation timeline for the new standards),” said the GAO. “But as time elapses, they may have more time to do so.” I would hope so. Whether you are six or sixty, you don’t want to eat mush. And if you don’t want to you probably won’t.  

To help schools up their yum-factor, the non-profit Project Bread asked chefs to write a cookbook of flavorful recipes that meet the federal nutrition targets. In addition to cutting back on sodium and opting for whole grains, the cookbook tries to build vegetables into many of its entrees. Take for example the beef stew with cauliflower or the chicken and spinach quesadilla on whole-wheat tortillas. Call it a slight-of-hand or call it smart, integrating veggies into a main course makes it far more likely that they’ll get consumed.

Veggies go glam

All that said, if you’ve had more than your fair share of sub-par vegetables, as most kids probably have, you’ll likely need some convincing to load up on carrots. Enter the new sexy ad campaign for extreme baby carrots, which looks more like a Mountain Dew ad than an eat your veggies mantra.  Similarly, the 2013 experimental campaign to make broccoli into the hip vegetable of choice used slogans like “Broccoli: Now 43% less pretentious than Kale,” and “Broccoli: Goes Great with Steak.”

Healthy might not be the biggest selling point for kids. But a poster with Beyoncé dishing up at the salad bar could be. Or what about the Seattle Seahawks grilling some butternut squash? Instead of nagging kids to eat better maybe we should be trying to give fruits and vegetables some cool points.

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Dirty Hands = Clean Plates

For most kids (and adults) food is what comes in boxes and bags, not out of the ground. It’s easy enough to throw out a salad when you didn’t grow it. But water a few tomato plants and spend an hour seeding lettuce, and things might seem different. Even the most dramatic cabbage-hater will eat the cabbage he picked, which is why school gardens programs like The Edible Schoolyard Project can be such powerful teachers.

These programs show kids how to plant and cook ingredients from their own plot, offering students a real sense of involvement in the meal. But more than that, the kids have fun-- with beets, arugula and artichokes and all sorts of other foods that might have previously earned a stink eye. It’s a hands-in-the-dirt revolution that the snack machine can’t match.

And More…   

Scheduling recess before lunch and allowing more time for kids to eat have both shown to reduce plate waste by up to 30 percent, according to the USDA.  In fact, they have a whole new infographic full of ideas to reduce school lunch waste. Allowing kids to keep a lunch or breakfast item to eat later in the day, share items they don’t plan to eat, and serve themselves are other strategies.  And once none of that works, schools can also be working to donate more food and compost what’s left, as is being done in New York City schools today.

So yes, there is a food waste problem in schools. But it’s not because there is something genetically impossible about a 3rd grader enjoying a green bean. If we focus on preparing tastier meals and sharing what’s exciting about healthy eating, we can make it hard not to want kale in your stir-fry.

Photos courtesy of USDA via Flikr