Parents Perspective

The Little-Known School Lunch Problem

When my daughter started kindergarten, I wasn't happy with the choices for school lunch so I packed her one almost everyday. Her lunch box came home empty, and she told me that liked what I made. All seemed well, until about a month later when I started volunteering in the school cafeteria. That's when I discovered my daughter and most of the other kids too barely ate any of their lunches. It didn't matter whether they brought or bought their lunches—so much of it went in the trash. Why? In my daughter's case, it was a combination of two things—I overpacked and she ran out of time. Her lunch period (like many schools) was short, lasting just 25 minutes. And she spent more time talking than eating. Fortunately, the fix was simple: I scaled back on what I packed and avoided foods (like a whole apple) that take a long time to eat or are hard to open (waiting for a lunch volunteer to help can waste 5 minutes or more). We also established a rule: Bring home your leftovers.

Later, I realized that the problem is pervasive. Students throw away more than $1.2 billion worth of food from school-lunch annually, according a Harvard University study. So last June, I asked the staff at Francis A. Desmores Elementary School in Flemington, New Jersey, whether Parents could stop by during lunch and film what the kids tossed in the trash. It was a wild request (and I felt a little weird asking) but I knew this school was progressive in school nutrition. It has a lovely school garden (read about it here) and had already been brainstorming ways to cut back on wasted food. The principal didn't hesitate to agree. Our videographer and I watched as kids tossed whole milk cartons, bags of snacks, lots of barely-touched salads, and much more in the trash. Click on the video to see for yourself:

The kids would have thrown out more, but fortunately pieces of whole fruit were spared. They're collected to be put in a basket outside the school nurse's office and kids can snag one for a snack anytime they're hungry. (Awesome idea to steal for your school!) Francis A. Desmores is also looking at adjusting the timing of lunch vs. recess, thinking that kids might be more apt to eat after they play. In my daughter's case, I think a swap like this would make her less likely to spend most of lunch talking since she would have received a chance to socialize beforehand. Has your child's school taken any steps to reduce waste in the cafeteria? If so, please share!

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