More Waste Management Reflections

In the November issue of School Nutrition, Cecily Walters provides an overview of waste management and minimization strategies and solutions offered by school nutrition professionals around the country. Operators provided so many great reflections and insights that we’re sharing some of them online, as well.

Union Public Schools, Tulsa, Okla.
Like many school nutrition operators across the country, Director of Child Nutrition Lisa Griffin, RD, LD, is on a mission to reduce food waste in her district. Her plan of attack? Plate waste studies that she and her staff began conducting during lunch this school year. So far, her team has performed these studies at five elementary schools and with the district’s 6th- and 7th-graders. She’ll look at conducting them with 8th-graders next, and studies with high schools also are forthcoming.

She and her staff examined students’ trays after they ate and assigned each student’s amount of waste to a category: 0% wasted (meaning everything on the tray was consumed), 25% wasted, 75% wasted or 100% wasted (nothing on the tray consumed). They recorded the day’s menu items and noted how much of each particular item was wasted, selecting students’ trays to examine at random. Staff members asked students the reason they left waste after finishing their lunch. Students could choose from the following options as reasons: once they were full, they left any remaining food behind; they didn’t find the food they left behind visually appealing; the food they left on their tray didn’t taste good; they had to take an item but didn’t want it; they weren’t hungry; or they were unsure of why they left food on their tray.

Using the percentage categories of waste they had noted for the students whose trays they examined, Griffin and her staff calculated an average of 38 percent plate waste for the five elementary school sites and an average of 34 percent plate waste for the district’s one 6th- and 7th-grade site. The most frequent reasons students cited for leaving food behind were that they were full and they had to take items they didn’t want. Griffin is pleased to note that the unconsumed food’s taste or visual appearance were not frequently reasons the students indicated.

Her initial prediction that fruit and vegetables would be the items most commonly wasted was proven true. The results prompted Griffin and her staff to make a plan to cut whole apples into pieces so that students can more easily eat apples in a shorter amount of time.

“It can be easy to blame the amount of food waste on the current regulations, but maybe it’s not that. The amount of time to eat seems to also affect the amount of food consumed,” Griffin reflects. Indeed, at two elementary schools where students have recess before lunch and more time to eat than students at the other elementary schools that participated in the plate waste studies, she and her staff calculated that around 20 percent of the food was wasted. She also plans to look at the results from the perspective of what time breakfast ends and what time lunch starts.

Taking a look at the specific foods that students left behind will help Griffin’s team with their menu planning, particularly fruits and vegetables. The studies revealed that students ate more raw vegetables than cooked vegetables, except for potatoes, which Griffin notes are especially popular. Looking at ways to season vegetables is a possibility. Griffin’s team also plans to come up with ideas of fruits and vegetables that would result in less food waste and would be less expensive to throw away. In addition to making plans for menu enhancements, the plate waste studies have revealed what items seem to be a hit with students—popcorn chicken, taco salad, pizza, mandarin oranges and milk, for example.

Griffin plans to hold nutrition education classes with students in all grade levels this school year, working with principals to connect with teachers of subjects like science and geography to tie the nutrition education into their lessons. She envisions sharing with students how much food is being thrown away, as well as how many meals that could represent and the costs of that waste. Another possible topic is the food supply chain and “how much work goes into producing food from beginning to end, from planting, growing, transporting, preparing and selling and marketing the food to the time it’s consumed,” says Griffin. She also likes the idea of increasing awareness about food waste and where it goes by holding a contest between classes or schools, in which students could weigh their combined food waste before participating in nutrition education classes and then again once the classes begin.

Griffin, who would like for her and some of her staff to become involved in school wellness committees, urges other school nutrition operators contemplating doing plate waste studies to put a plan into motion and approach the effort from the viewpoint of “Let’s fight the problem of food waste and do something about it.”

Shawnee Mission School District, Overland Park, Kan.
Director of Food Service Nancy Coughenour reports that as part of her operation’s focus on waste management, her staff uses dish machines and washes student trays. They use washable trays and reusable plastic utensils in the district’s elementary and middle schools and washable trays with disposable paper food containers at the high school level. The 15-in. x 9-in. tray used in the elementary and middle schools “allows the staff to place two trays on end, side by side in a dishrack. Thus, we are able to wash twice as many trays and reduce water and soap consumption,” cites Coughenour. If a school’s dish machine is down, the staff uses compostable compartment trays. The district also eliminated all Styrofoam about 10 years ago. In some schools, students separate the trash from their trays into categories: paper, food and other. The custodian then disposes of the items in the proper barrels outside. The operation works with vendors who pick up the material for recycling and composting purposes, Coughenour reports.

Another way that the Shawnee Mission operation keeps an eye on food waste is the sharing table concept. Items that students do not want that are individually packaged, such as yogurt and cheese sticks, can be placed on the sharing table for other students to take. Coughenour and her staff also promote the concept of “Take what you want, but eat what you take” on the salad bars, she explains.

When it comes to all of the operation’s efforts to reduce waste and to compost, “our parents are very supportive,” Coughenour notes. She encourages other school nutrition operators interested in exploring waste management or minimization solutions to “do their research and understand their options in the community [where] they live and work. Have conversations with the community, students and district personnel to develop a plan.” She emphasizes how important it is to involve all stakeholders in the process, as others may have great ideas that you and your staff had not considered. In addition, highlighting the cooperative spirit of many in the school nutrition profession, Coughenour advises, “reach out to other directors to understand what they are doing [with waste management] and why.”

Lakeside (Calif.) Union School District
“I told the staff at the beginning of the school year that this would be my biggest success or my greatest failure,” reflects Child Nutrition Director Sally Spero, SNS. She’s describing the menu modification introduced this school year in her district’s elementary schools, resulting in a significant cost and waste reduction.

Spero and her staff offer three daily lunch choices—two hot and one cold. She explains that the cold option is always vegetarian—though many hot entrées are vegetarian, as well—and is a good choice for students who don’t want a hot meal or who may be picky eaters. “Especially at the beginning of the year, it's also a good option for the very young children when the cafeteria environment and hot food choices are overwhelming,” she notes.

For the past two years, Spero’s operation served an 8-oz. yogurt with a bagel and cream cheese as the cold option. However, she and her team observed that many students wanted only one of these items; students who ate the bagel often didn’t eat the yogurt, while many yogurt eaters weren’t interested in the bagel. This led to a number of food items being discarded each day. Though Spero tried setting up a sharing table at each school, which helped reduce waste somewhat, “I just wasn't happy with the way things were going and the fact that we were essentially wasting half of every one of those meals.”

These waste levels led Spero to brainstorm a replacement for the yogurt-and-bagel cold option. Her solution? A new concept called Energy Packs, which each include three items that are placed into a small container that features a descriptive label that comes from a color printer. Students can choose from four varieties: cottage cheese/apple slices/graham crackers, bean dip/cheese cubes/tortilla chips, yogurt/sunflower seeds/graham crackers and string cheese/marinara sauce/graham crackers. “We are now working on a Sunbutter/celery sticks/graham crackers [variety], but we've been having trouble locating the Sunbutter cup so far,” Spero reports, adding that she will keep looking for an appropriate Sunbutter product.

So far, the Energy Packs have been quite a hit, and the Lakeside operation has had to ramp up its production efforts to keep up with the demand. The school nutrition team began the school year making 60 packs per day to be sent to the schools, and three weeks into the school year, Spero was pleased that team members were making 220 packs per day, a number that’s still growing.

As an added benefit, “the waste problem is essentially gone,” according to Spero, who observes that students seem to enjoy the small packages of various items. Not only are the sharing tables now relatively empty, the Energy Packs have a 40% lower food cost than the previous yogurt-and-bagel option. Spero used the savings to add a new half-time position at the operation’s central kitchen to help make the Energy Packs. “Giving one of our people more pay and more hours and having less waste has been cost-neutral for us,” she describes. Looking back on her start-of-the-school-year prediction that the Energy Packs would be a big success or an extreme failure, Spero exclaims, “Whew! The gamble paid off!”

You’re the Expert

A snapshot of the districts that shared their experiences with waste management solutions in this Bonus Web Content article.

  • Union Public Schools
    Tulsa, Okla.
    Director: Lisa Griffin, RD, LD
    District enrollment: ~16,000
    Number of schools: 18

  • Shawnee Mission School District
    Overland Park, Kan.
    Director: Nancy Coughenour
    District enrollment: ~28,000
    Number of schools: 45

  • Lakeside Union School District
    Lakeside, Calif.
    Director: Sally Spero, SNS
    District enrollment: ~4,500
    Number of schools: 9

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