Study tracks school lunch food waste

More fruit and veggies than ever ending up in trash

It's harvest season!
You can give school kids all the fruit in the world, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to eat it. @bberwyn photo.

Staff Report

FRISCO — A push to get kids eating healthier school meals isn’t exactly playing out as hoped, according to Vermont researchers, who used cameras to track what students are doing with the fresh fruit and veggies on their lunch trays.

It may not be a surprise to anyone who has spent time in a school lunch room, but many students are putting the apples and oranges straight into the trash, eating even fewer of them than they did before the the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was passed.

The new study, published online in Public Health Reports, is the first to use digital imaging to capture students’ lunch trays before and after they exited the lunch line. It is also one of the first to compare fruit and vegetable consumption before and after the controversial legislation – the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 – was passed.

The study found that students put more fruits and vegetables on their trays, as required by the law. But that doesn’t mean the goodies are being eaten. Overall, the study found a big increase in food waste.“The basic question we wanted to explore was, does requiring a child to select a fruit or vegetable actually correspond with consumption,” says Sarah Amin, Ph.D., a researcher in Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont and lead author on the study.

“The answer was clearly no,” she said. “It was heartbreaking to see so many students toss fruits like apples into the trash right after exiting the lunch line.”

The researchers say they’re confident of their data, which is based on digital imaging rather than the traditional method of weighing food waste. The study is based on observations of 500 food trays during 10 visits to two elementary schools in the Northeast before implementation of the USDA guideline and almost twice as many observations afterwards.

Forty to 60 percent percent of the students at the schools qualified for free or reduced lunch, a marker for low socioeconomic status.

The methodology involved visual estimations and calculations based on digital photographs of trays as students reached the cashier and again after they passed the food disposal area.

“The beauty of this method is that you have the data to store and code to indicate what was selected, what was consumed, and what was wasted as opposed to weighed plate waste, where everything needs to be done on site,” said Amin, who hopes to develop an online training tutorial that could be used by schools across the country to measure consumption and waste.

Revisiting past practices part of answer to increasing consumption

In an earlier study published in the Journal of Child Nutrition and Management, Amin and colleagues looked at what types of fruits and vegetables children selected prior to the new guideline.

They found that children preferred processed fruits and vegetables such as the tomato paste on pizza or 100 percent fruit juice rather than whole varieties.

In addition to making sure those options are available, Amin and her colleagues offer these additional strategies in the paper for increasing fruit and vegetable consumption in school lunch programs:

  • Cutting up vegetables and serving them with dip or mixing them in with other parts of the meal;
  • Slicing fruits like oranges or apples, rather than serving them whole;
  • Adopting promising strategies targeting school settings such as Farm-to-School programs and school gardens, which can encourage fruit and vegetable consumption in addition to what the cafeteria is providing
  • Putting public health programs in place that encourage fruit and vegetable consumption in the home, which could carry over to school.

Once schools have fully acclimated to the guidelines, Amin thinks consumption will increase, especially for students who entered as kindergarteners under the new guidelines in 2012 and know no other way.

“An important message is that guidelines need to be supplemented with other strategies to enrich fruit and vegetable consumption. We can’t give up hope yet.”

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One thought on “Study tracks school lunch food waste

  1. Reblogged this on This Got My Attention and commented:
    Eating fruits and veggies is a great idea. But, it should start at home with parents teaching kids to eat nutritious food. They aren’t likely to eat it ‘cuz the lunch lady tells them to.

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