Q & A

Student Plate Waste: Insights From School Nutrition Professionals

  • July 10, 2014

KSHF_CookingUpChange_RAW_npEva Russo

Reducing plate waste—the amount of food discarded by students—is an important goal for school food service departments within their ultimate mission: to support children’s health and academic success by ensuring that they are well-nourished.

Plate waste is one way to measure performance. Less food in trash bins can indicate that kids like the items served and, if these foods and beverages are healthy, that students are getting more of the nutrients they need. Children’s food preferences, however, are only one component in plate waste. Other factors include varying caloric needs and access to nutrition education, food presentation and marketing, the length of the lunch period, and the structure of the school day.

The Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project asked school nutrition professionals about the plate waste they observe and the solutions they have put in place to address this issue. Here’s what they had to say.

Q: What is the biggest reason that students in your district throw away food?

A: Healthier foods take longer to eat compared with chicken nuggets and french fries. Our schools have not increased the time allotted for meals, and our students are forced to start with what they want the most and throw away what they don’t have time to get to.

— Roger Kipp, director of food services, Norwood City School District (Ohio)

A: The biggest reason that students throw away food in our school is that they spend a lot of time talking and walking around looking for their friends to sit with. Also, I think that the lunch period should be extended. Ours is only 20 minutes, and it should be lengthened to 30.

Melanie Lagasse, school cook, New Sweden Consolidated School (Maine)

A: I think the reasons we see plate waste are related to requiring a specific serving size [for fruits and vegetables] and the media attention it generated. [Without a requirement] I think you would naturally see kids take portions that they would eat, and as their tastes grew, they would take larger servings of the fruits and vegetables.

Michelle Kloser, food services director, School District of the Menomonie Area (Wisconsin)

Q: Are there other contributing factors?

A: Sometimes kids are not hungry, and that is okay. They might think they want a fruit or vegetable when they go through the line, but when they go to eat it, they are no longer hungry.

Donna Martin, director, School Nutrition Program, Burke County Public Schools (Georgia)

A: Large pieces of fresh, uncut fruit probably do go to the trash more often than some other foods, because they are difficult for little ones to eat and sometimes may appear daunting, meaning they leave it for last, even if they like the taste of it.

Lisa Sims, director of school nutrition, Daviess County Public Schools (Kentucky)

Q: What have you done to help reduce plate waste?

A: We try to cut up our fresh fruit, which makes students much more likely to pick it up and eat it. We schedule recess before lunch in elementary school so that kids are hungrier when they come to their midday meal. We offer a minimum of five choices of fruits and vegetables daily, and we encourage our schools to over-prepare each day so they have leftovers. We put these out the next day, so sometimes we have six to 10 choices on the line. Therefore, there is almost always a fruit or vegetable that the students like.

Donna Martin, director, School Nutrition Program, Burke County Public Schools (Georgia)

A: Districts can implement practices and education programs to help students understand food waste. For instance, after the serving line we have “share tables” set up where students can place items they won't eat. Other students then can take food from there if they are still hungry.

Jennifer LeBarre, director, Nutrition Services, Oakland Unified School District (California)

A: We do encourage students to try new foods as they walk through the line and to concentrate on eating while at the table.

Lisa Sims, director of school nutrition, Daviess County Public Schools (Kentucky)

A: Education! We need to teach our students why it’s important to eat healthfully. We can’t just change the menu; we have to change the culture of our communities if we are to make a sustainable difference.

Roger Kipp, director of food services, Norwood City School District (Ohio)

Q: Do you have any other thoughts on this issue that you would like to share?

A: We started implementing changes in our meal program roughly five years ago, so when the [updated USDA] guidelines came into effect, it was not a big shock for the children. When they enter the pre-K program, they are treated just like all of the other students.

Melanie Lagasse, school cook, New Sweden Consolidated School (Maine)

A: I have been offering a "garden bar" in all grade levels since my first job in school nutrition in the early 2000s. We offer a variety of healthy fresh fruits and vegetables, and before the mandatory serving size we just encouraged the kids to be sure and try foods from the garden bar. It worked! I always saw consumption grow as the school year went on. The kids were selecting produce because they heard the positive message about eating healthfully not only from food service personnel but also in their classroom.

Michelle Kloser, food services director, School District of the Menomonie Area (Wisconsin)

A: We have three choices with uneaten food and/or leftovers: (1) Throw it away. (2) Re-serve it if allowed by the Health Department. (3) Donate it to outside organizations.

Health departments have differing interpretations of what types of food can be reused after service. For example, some say that you can re-serve fruit such as apples after they are washed; others limit reuse to items such as bananas.

Milk is another wasted product. California law states that it must be thrown away after service even though it is still at the proper temperature and is unopened.

Waste could be significantly reduced if local and state policies ensured that we could serve leftover food in our after-school snack programs or offer it to parents and teachers.

Jennifer LeBarre, director, Nutrition Services, Oakland Unified School District (California)

For more ideas to reduce plate waste, see the Smarter Lunchroom Movement's checklist of low and no-cost changes that can inspire students to select and eat healthy foods.

Media Contact

Matt Mulkey

Manager, Communications

202.862.9864

Additional Resources

Smarter Lunchroom Movement Checklist

A checklist of low and no-cost changes that can increase students’ consumption of healthy foods and reduce cafeteria waste.