Why Are Children Throwing Away School Lunches?

May 4, 2017 5:21 pm Last Updated: May 4, 2017 5:30 pm

With a hint of a hyperbole, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue moved this week to “make school meals great again,” somewhat relaxing dietary regulations imposed by the Obama administration and Congress in 2010.

“This announcement is the result of years of feedback from students, schools, and food service experts about the challenges they are facing in meeting the final regulations for school meals,” Perdue said in a release.

“If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition—thus undermining the intent of the program” he added.

Some 30 million children eat the lunches sponsored by the federal National School Lunch Program. The federal government spends some $13 billion a year, parents get charged another $6 billion, and states chip in hundreds of millions more.

Candy Flores (R) of Arlington Food Services prepares ham and cheese wraps for the National School Lunch Program in the kitchen at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va., Oct. 19, 2011. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
Candy Flores (R) of Arlington Food Services prepares ham and cheese wraps for the National School Lunch Program in the kitchen at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va., Oct. 19, 2011. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

The trouble is, children throw a lot of the food away.

How much? Nobody knows for sure. Several studies, each limited to a handful of schools, found waste of roughly 25-45 percent, with vegetable waste up to 90 percent.

There are at least five reasons for this and a couple of solutions attempted by individual schools.

Time to Eat

Some students don’t finish their meals simply because the school doesn’t give them enough time. One in seven students has less than 15 minutes to eat, a 2013 parents survey showed.

Some experts urge schools to expand lunch breaks to give students more time to not only eat, but to socialize.  

Eating Habits

Studies consistently show children often throw fruit and vegetables away without even touching them. More than half the apples and two-thirds of the broccoli ended up in trash at 12 Connecticut schools, a study showed.

Experts look for the reason in eating habits. If children don’t eat apples and broccoli at home, they’re less likely to eat them at school.

But that’s only part of the story, since many children likely do eat apples at home, but may still trash them at school. And many wouldn’t eat broccoli even if served at home.

Mediocre Quality

Since the government pays for a lunch served, not eaten, schools don’t have a financial incentive to ensure children actually eat their food. That may lead schools to settle for mediocre meals.

It’s not that there’s necessarily something wrong with the food. But there’s not much right with it either. That’s especially so for schools serving a lot of students from low-income families, where the taxpayer picks up the whole tab. As long as the food is preferable to hunger, the schools don’t have to worry too much about students quitting on lunches altogether—and thus stripping the school of the federal funding.

Regulation

To be sure, the government won’t pay for just any meal. It imposes dietary standards. That should ensure schools serve good quality food of sufficient nutrition.

In 2010, the Democrat-led Congress and the Obama administration imposed a new set of school food regulations. The idea was to make the food more healthy.

The resulting regulation set minimum levels of vegetables and fruit served, calorie limits on how much children can put on their trays, it banned 2 percent and whole milk, banned non-whole grains, set maximum fat levels, and set a schedule for lowering the sodium content of meals.

There’s more, like a rule that children always have to take fruit or vegetable side with their meals.

School lunch staff and students at the Yorkshire Elementary School in Manassas, Va., on Sept. 7, 2012. (Lance Cheung/U.S. Department of Agriculture)
School lunch staff and students at the Yorkshire Elementary School in Manassas, Va., on Sept. 7, 2012. (Lance Cheung/U.S. Department of Agriculture)

The results have been mixed based on several studies, each limited to a handful of schools.

When given more fruit on the menu, children picked it up more often, studies show with some consistency. Yet when forced to pick it up, many children threw the fruit away, one study showed.

Some studies showed that serving more vegetables made children eat more of them. Other studies showed children actually ate less vegetables after the new regulations were put in place.

Some studies and surveys showed the new regulations caused children to throw more food away. Other studies showed same levels of food trashing as before.

The total food cost for schools went up by some $1.2 billion in extra spending in 2015.

Despite the extra spending, the new rules didn’t guarantee better quality. In some cases, quite the opposite. Scores of students post pictures of unappealing school lunches on social media and complain the food is bland and portions are too small.

The regulations limit a high schooler’s lunch to 850 calories—an equivalent of one Five Guys cheeseburger with no toppings. Nutrition experts say that should be enough. But some decry the one-size-fits-all approach.

“As far as meal guidelines, you can’t say that a 300-pound football player and a 90-pound cheerleader have the same needs on a daily basis,” said Brett Lago, business manager at Penn-Trafford School District in Pennsylvania, according to TribLive.

Regulators have trouble adjusting for such individual preferences. They can’t quantifying how appealing or appetizing a meal must be. And so schools with passive staff and leadership figure out a way to do an absolute minimum, while enthusiastic teams are constrained in their creativity by the rules.

Respect

Apart from a lack of respect for food in general, children may have more respect for food prepared by their families than for food made by an anonymous government employee. Some schools try to promote respect for the work that goes into school lunches. For example, by introducing “lunchlady appreciation” days.

Solutions

Penn-Trafford High School ditched the federal lunch program this year and instead focused on food quality and variation. Stronger lunch sales made up for the lost federal funding.

“The participation has gone from about 25 to 45 percent, and we’re still providing free lunches to all those students who would have been eligible under the [federal] school lunch program,” Lago said.

Yet schools in poorer areas likely wouldn’t be able to follow suit. Only 14 percent of Penn-Trafford students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. In many inner-city schools that percentage easily surpasses 50 percent or even closes in on 100 percent. In absence of federal funding, they would need another sponsor.

Birmingham Public Schools district in Michigan took a different route. It contracted with a food service provider and tries to be creative within the limits of the regulations. For example, children often dislike the taste of whole-grain bakery. And so the schools try to hide them in more appealing forms like whole-grain pizzas or tortillas.

Birmingham Public Schools special lunch for the Valentine's Day. (Birmingham Public Schools Food Service)
Birmingham Public Schools special lunch for the Valentine’s Day. (Birmingham Public Schools Food Service)

The schools also hunt for trendy recipes and offer fancier meals for a small surcharge. They try to reduce cost by meticulous attention to reducing waste during preparation. Still, even there, food waste among students prevails.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue thinks schools will benefit from a bit more flexibility.

Here are the changes he made:

Rule under Obama:

  • 100% of grains must be whole grain
  • 24% additional cut to salt content starting next school year
  • Flavored milk must be non-fat

Rule under Trump:

  • 50% of grains can be non-whole grain
  • No additional cut to salt content
  • 1% flavored milk allowed