LOVELAND – Between a third and a half of all the fruits and vegetables served to youngsters at some Loveland school cafeterias last year wound up in the trash, a study has found.

Researchers used photos of students' cafeteria trays to determine how much food was wasted.

Forget about leading horses to water. School officials are trying to figure out how to get their young diners to eat more of the healthy stuff that’s put on their plates.

“It’s not healthy until the kids eat it,” said Stephanie Smith, a dietitian and doctoral candidate at Colorado State University, who conducted the plate waste survey for Thompson School District. “This is important information for the schools to have so if they make some menu changes, they’ll have a way to evaluate whether those changes are effective.”

The results of the survey, which Smith says are comparable to nationwide findings, were delivered to the district board of education last month. The findings form the basis for a pilot project that will be launched this fall at Thompson middle schools. School officials will be trying some new strategies – including rearranging lunch schedules and serving lines – to get students to select more fresh produce at lunch.

“We’ll also try to do some outreach to families and to conduct more nutrition education with students,” said Tammy Rempe, director of nutrition services for the school district. “Consumption is so poor. Last year, we bought 215,000 pounds of fresh produce for our district elementaries. It’s sad to see all the fresh fruits and vegetables being thrown away. Even the canned stuff is eaten much better. I think they’re more used to canned products.”

Digital images a less messy way of recording waste

In the old days, researchers trying to assess how much school cafeteria food was wasted engaged in a messy process of scraping and weighing the uneaten food from every plate. Smith relied on a digital camera to avoid most of that.

Students at the participating schools – three elementaries, two middle schools and two high schools – brought their trays of food to Smith, who filled out index cards showing what selections each student made, then took photos of each tray. After they finished eating, instead of throwing their uneaten food away, they returned to Smith, who took more photos of the trays. Later, she could compare before and after photos for each student to determine just what percentage of each tray’s contents had been eaten.

“If we had a tray that was hard to estimate – say, a student played with his food and mixed foods together – then we’d bag that up and weigh it,” she said. “Since the district is very good about maintaining standard portion sizes, we can get to within 10 percent in estimating how much is eaten.”

See the plate waste percentages from three Loveland elementary schools.

Measuring the amount of milk the students drank was harder, since the milk containers aren’t see-through. So Smith poured leftover milk into a measuring cup.

Click on graphic to enlarge.

Plate waste was monitored during five randomly selected lunch periods at the elementary schools and four lunch periods at the middle and high schools. Between 150 and 200 trays were collected per school during each observation period.

At the elementary schools, nearly all the students took the offered entrée of the day and most of them opted for the canned fruit option. But fewer than half selected the fresh fruit or vegetable of the day. The students typically left 20 to 25 percent of their entrée uneaten. But at two of the three schools, the amount of fruit served that ended up in the trash topped 40 percent, while between 32 and 44 percent of the vegetables were thrown away.

The amount of uneaten food dropped significantly at the third school, however. There, just 29 percent of canned fruit, 25 percent of fresh fruit and 24 percent of vegetables went uneaten.

Timing of recess seems to make a difference

Why the difference? Smith suspects it’s because at that school, Cottonwood Plains Elementary, recess is scheduled before lunch. At the other schools, Sarah Milner and Winona, students eat before recess.

“What research has shown is that when recess is before lunch, kids are settled down,” she said, “and they’re hungry because they’ve been out playing, so they tend to eat more food.”

Milk consumption was also better at Cottonwood Plains. Only 18 percent of the milk went undrunk, versus 33 percent and 45 percent at the other two schools.

Recess matters
“What research has shown is that when recess is before lunch, kids are settled down and they’re hungry because they’ve been out playing, so they tend to eat more food.”
— Stephanie Smith, dietitian

At the middle schools, high levels of waste continued. While the amount of uneaten entrée averaged between 16 and 22 percent, nearly half the fresh fruit was tossed away uneaten, as was more than a third of the canned fruit.

And at one school, fewer than 20 percent of students bothered to take a vegetable at all. Of the few vegetables that were served, 36 percent didn’t get eaten. More students – nearly half – opted for the vegetable at the other school, but that statistic may be a bit skewed because potatoes was on the menu one day, and potatoes tend to be far more popular than other vegetables. Even so, 26 percent went uneaten.

At the high schools, waste declined, with almost all the entrees being eaten. But the proportion of fruits and vegetables that went uneaten ranged between 13 and 39 percent.

Results mirror what’s happening in other schools

Other key findings from the study:

  • At all grade levels, between a third to half the students cleaned their plates, throwing away no food at all.
  • Girls tended to waste more food than boys.
  • Younger students tended to waste more food than older students.
  • Students selected fruits and vegetables far less often than entrees and milk.

While the study measured only what a few hundred students ate on any given day, Smith says she’s confident the findings are representative of what happens across the district.

“From what I’ve seen, this is consistent with what’s seen elsewhere, and in other school districts,” she said.

Among the strategies Thompson officials will try this fall in the district middle schools is putting fruits and vegetables at the start of the serving line rather than in the middle, and giving the selections appealing, descriptive names.

“Also, we’ll have the cafeteria staff consistently verbally offering the kids the food,” Rempe said. “We hope that when we make the verbal offer, kids will be more likely to make the selection.”