If you’ve ever packed kids’ lunches with healthy food, you know how hard it can be to get them to eat it.
Multiply that problem by more than 32,000. That’s how many lunches were served daily in Wichita schools in October.
Or try 362,000. That’s how many lunches were served daily in Kansas schools last year.
Lunchroom supervisors will tell you a significant amount of that food ends up in the trash. As long as children have been picky eaters, wasted food has been part of the deal.
But there is a nationwide concern that new federal regulations that required increased servings of fruits and vegetables this fall are leading to even more food being thrown away by students.
A central Florida school district is considering putting cameras in lunchroom trash cans to measure how much of the fruits and veggies are being tossed.
At a meeting last week, Wichita school board member Lanora Nolan said there was a “collective community concern” about the waste of fresh fruits and vegetables. She asked district staff to provide specifics about the new guidelines and what could be done so the wasted food could be sent home to families.
“If they choose not to have it at lunch,” Nolan said later in the week, “I’m just curious to see what we could do to get the food home with them. They may be more inclined to have it for dinner. We have some hungry families.”
Kansas Food Bank sends food backpacks home each weekend for 6,500 schoolchildren, including 1,200 in the Wichita area, who are considered as not getting enough to eat at home. More than 30,000 children in Sedgwick County don’t have enough access to food, according to a study by Feeding America, a national nonprofit that includes more than 200 food banks.
“I’m certain the intent of the policy is for the food to be eaten,” Nolan said of the new federal guidelines. “But oftentimes, the way policy is implemented doesn’t always play out the way it is intended. I feel quite confident that’s what is going on here.”
Reusing leftovers from federally reimbursable school lunches is a lot trickier than pulling last night’s spaghetti out of the refrigerator at home. Rules abound.
Nothing can be done with unwrapped food that has already been served to a child because of food safety issues, said Cheryl Johnson, child nutrition and wellness director for the Kansas Department of Education.
“That’s Kansas food code,” she added. “You would have all kinds of infections. That’s not something you would want to do ever.”
The state agency administers the federal regulations ordered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the National School Lunch Program.
There are a few options for some of the leftover food.
Many schools have “share” tables where students can put wrapped items like crackers or such fruits as oranges and bananas that they put on their tray but decided not to eat. Other students may take that food.
But those items can’t be re-served at school because schools have already claimed reimbursement on them from the federal government, said Vicki Hoffman, Wichita schools’ nutrition services director.
Federal guidelines do allow some excess food that has not been served to be sent to community organizations or agencies that help feed the hungry.
For years, Wichita schools have sent that food to the Union Rescue Mission, Hoffman said. About twice a week, the mission picks up such items as salad mix prepared at the district’s central kitchen or extra cases of bananas.
“We have to put bids out on produce three weeks ahead,” she said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen with attendance three weeks out.”
Goddard’s excess food and produce are taken almost monthly to Lakeside Academy, a facility for boys in the school district, said Marianne Fenili, Goddard’s nutrition service director.
Johnson County’s Blue Valley school district has enough freezers that it can freeze leftovers and then send the items to Harvesters, a nonprofit Kansas City-area community food bank.
Martha Lawson, Derby’s food service supervisor, said she sometimes plans for leftovers using unserved food.
“After we have sliced bell peppers on the district menu,” she said, “we will have fajitas the following day at the high school. Leftover chili is frozen and might be served on baked potatoes at a later date.”
$11.1 billion for lunches
The new federal regulations, which came out of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, represent the first major nutritional overhaul of school meals in more than 15 years. They include everything from regulating calories and serving sizes to requiring more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Those regulations didn’t get into school districts’ hands until last spring and came with many unanswered questions. School menu planners were still trying to sort it out this fall as they put together the puzzle that would satisfy the feds.
“Before this I spent about 25 percent of my time on menus,” Goddard’s Fenili said. “Now it’s 75 percent.”
Hoffman said she hasn’t tried to figure how much time her staff has spent on making the menus fit the guidelines. “It would be discouraging if we did,” she said, “but we’ve put in significant more time.”
In order to get an extra 6-cent reimbursement per meal, districts must also provide documentation of their menus to the USDA. As one of the state’s two largest school districts, Wichita was required to file the paperwork.
Only schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program have to follow the federal rules, but that’s pretty much all of them. To step away from the system would be costly.
Districts receive a reimbursement not only for those students who receive free and reduced-cost lunches but for full-price lunches. Federal money helps keep the cost of all lunches at a lower price.
Wichita schools received more than $18 million in reimbursement for lunches it served in 2011-12. Goddard, with 5,400 students, is reimbursed about a half-million dollars annually, Fenili said.
The National School Lunch Program served about 7.1 million children nationally when it began in 1946, according to the USDA. In 2011, it served 31.8 million children each day for an annual cost of $11.1 billion.
40 percent food waste
Nutrition service officials for Wichita and area schools say they don’t see a larger amount of waste than last year, although they acknowledge more food may have been tossed earlier in the fall when students, cafeteria workers and menu planners were still adjusting to the new regulations.
“The food waste is not significantly greater this year,” Hoffman said. “There are those learning curves for the kids to know what they have to take.”
Some who pull lunchroom supervising duty say waste may have increased.
“I understand what they’re doing. They’re forcing kids to have all this stuff on their trays,” said Rick Hartsell, assistant principal at Wichita’s Stucky Middle School. “But when you force kids to put something on their trays and you know they’re not going to eat it, that forces more stuff to be thrown away.”
The USDA hasn’t done a study on school food waste since 2002, though a spokeswoman said one is planned for the 2014-15 school year. The Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York City-based nonprofit that is an advocate for environmental issues, estimated in August that 40 percent of the food in the United States is never eaten.
Avoiding some food waste in schools is common sense.
“If we look in the trash can and see all that bean salad has been thrown away,” said Ann Katt, nutrition director for Andover schools, “we know there won’t be any more bean salad served.”
Orange slices also work better, especially for younger students, than whole oranges.
To encourage students to eat what’s on their plate, various things have been tried.
Taste testing is done at a lot of schools, including in Wichita, where products are taken to the schools to let the students sample them and give feedback.
Last year, six Wichita elementaries used a federal grant program to help children get used to eating fresh vegetables and fruits. They were offered at snack breaks during the classroom. This year, 20 elementaries are taking part in the program, Hoffman said.
“It doesn’t mean they love carrots any more,” she said, “but their willingness to try something is a little greater.”
Johnson, of the state’s education department, said the Erie-Galesburg school district in southeast Kansas was having trouble getting its kindergartners and first-graders to eat anything but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
“So the staff came up with the idea of letting them taste bite-size portions of the entree or the fruit and vegetable before lunch,” Johnson said. The district has dropped from 25 PB&J sandwiches daily for that age group to two or three.
Time to eat
Choice is a significant factor.
“If kids can pick it themselves,” Johnson said, “they’re more apt to eat it.”
There are two ways to get the food on the students’ trays and meet the guidelines.
One is the serve method: Put five food groups – grains, milk, meats, fruits, vegetables – on the tray and hope the child eats them.
The other way is to offer some choices. A student has to take only three of the five food groups for that district to count it as a reimbursable meal. But one of those three choices must be a half-cup of either a vegetable or a fruit from a food bar that has various selections.
“That was USDA’s way of trying to cut down on waste,” Johnson said.
Most schools have found that the offer method works best. Maize added that method for its elementary schools this year.
“It’s going really well,” said Julie Shrewsbury, director of food services for the Maize schools. “Most of the things we’re doing really haven’t changed.”
Wichita schools use the offer method for its middle schools and high schools but have stuck with serving all five food groups to elementary students. The younger children can take too long in making choices and delay the serving line, Hoffman said.
Fredonia and Neodesha schools have tried to help their younger children deal with a serving line by taking salad tongs and serving scoops into their classroom and letting them practice picking up non-food items.
“Now they’re having no problems moving through the lines quickly,” Johnson said.
Andover’s Katt acknowledged it’s a slow process to get younger students to use the offer method. “Kindergartners are just excited to get in a lunchroom,” she said.
Katt said parent volunteers in the lunchroom help children make their choices.
Johnson points to lack of time to eat lunch as a key factor in food being thrown away.
State guidelines recommend that schools allow a minimum of 15 minutes for students to eat, starting from the time they are served until they are required to leave the cafeteria, she said.
Wichita schools allow at least 20 minutes for the total time for the lower grades, while high school students get up to an hour, Hoffman said.
“Twenty minutes sounds good unless a bunch of those kids are standing in line for 10 minutes,” she said. “These are also little kids who have been in class. They get to lunch and they just want to chatter, chatter, chatter and don’t eat.”
Whether food gets eaten or tossed depends heavily on whether the students like the food.
All the student taste testing won’t overcome the soggy grilled-cheese sandwiches that sometime show up at elementary schools after being wrapped in plastic and placed in delivery cabinets.
Nolan, the Wichita school board member, visited Hamilton Middle School at lunchtime last week and said most students were eating what they put on their tray.
“Some students wanted fruits they get at home but not at school, like mangos and pineapples,” she said. “What resonated with me was that kids like ethnic food. They want more Chinese and Mexican food. They want more culturally based foods. I found that to be very interesting and hope to be able to pursue it.”
More pizza is a common request from students. Wichita schools still serve pizza, but new federal guidelines prevent it from being delivered by Papa John’s or CiCi’s as it was in the past.
Not everyone was sinking their teeth into the spicy chicken sandwiches at Stucky one day last week.
“They’re gross,” said Tina Melvin, an eighth-grader.
But a friend who didn’t bring his lunch as usual was glad to eat it.
“You have to have the magic fingers to find the warm ones,” said Tevin Hines Jr., an eighth-grader who ate his sandwich. He left his apple for later.
“I do not throw anything away,” he added. “That’s wasteful.”
Hoffman would like to see more students think that way, but she said expanding food preferences have to be made when the children are in the lower grades.
“By the time they get to high school,” she said, “they’re not going to change habits a lot. The hope is with little ones.”
Getting parents to help improve students’ eating habits would help and avoid the waste, Hoffman said.
“It’s a given that eating more fruits and vegetables is a good thing,” she said. “If we can get those kids to eat those things, we’re all going to be better off.
“But it’s a hard task if parents, in their evening meal, have a hamburger and fries from the local fast-food restaurant.”
Contributing: Suzanne Perez Tobias of The Eagle.