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Cafeteria staffs struggle with serving food they know will end up in the trash

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A second-grader took a few small bites of the rice and beans sitting on his tray, but his friend next to him left his serving untouched.

Sam Davis left his serving untouched because he thinks beans taste bad, no matter what they’re mixed with. Peyton Strunk, who was sitting at the same table, tried a few bites but didn’t like the rice and beans. Meanwhile, Kennedy Bay ate the lunch she brought from home because she doesn’t like many of the foods served in her school cafeteria, beans and rice included.

One after another, students at Northwood Elementary School in Franklin returned their lunch trays, and significantly more than half had a serving of rice and beans that looked untouched. And there’s only one place for that bean dish to go: into the trash.

School cafeteria managers know what children will willingly eat, but federal guidelines tell them to serve those bean dishes anyway. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010 includes a bevy of requirements for school lunches, such as serving one leafy green vegetable and one bean item each week. Schools have to meet these requirements before they can receive federal funding, which pays for as much as 65 percent of the cost of breakfast and lunch at some schools.

Regulations force schools to serve chocolate milk that is fat free, and students in elementary school must receive at least 3¾ cups of vegetables and 2½ cups of fruit each week. But within the vegetable requirements, schools have specific guidelines, such as offering one bean item a week.

And next year, new requirements, such as serving only whole-wheat pasta instead of traditional noodles, will begin.

Local cafeteria managers say the intention of the federal regulations, getting kids to eat healthier, is good. But the strict requirements about what has to be offered in a given week are where problems arise, as money and time are wasted making a bean dish that is barely eaten by the students.

Schools meet the federal requirements by serving the kids those foods, but nobody can force the students to eat them. Carrots are considered healthy, and students will eat those for the most part; but the rules require other types of vegetables, such as beans or peas, to be mixed into the meal plans.

Unused food can’t be given to a food pantry or homeless shelter, or the school will lose federal funding. So most of the unpopular dishes end up in the trash.

“It breaks my heart to see how much food we waste,” Northwood food services manager Lori Wolf said.

School cafeteria managers try to find ways to make bean and spinach dishes seem fun or, more importantly, something an 8-year-old will eat. Wolf used one of her own recipes to make a spinach souffle to meet that vegetable requirement one week. She even used Mike Wozniak, a character from Monsters Inc., in promoting the side dish, which she said was a moderate success.

But even the name of some vegetables will draw the ire of kids, such as spinach. But federal regulations require schools to offer one dish a week that is leafy green, such as spinach.

Spinach, like beans, is not an easy sell for elementary-aged students.

‘Unintended consequences’

Greenwood schools will end up throwing away about 30 percent of its vegetables and fruit cups of apple chunks. The high school will spend about $425 each week on fresh produce, and that cost doesn’t include canned items, such as peas or peaches. French fries are always a popular choice, but they can be offered only twice a week under federal guidelines. Spinach is never an easy sell and most of that goes to waste, Greenwood food services director Cheryl Hargis said.

“You just know the items that they’re not going to take,” Hargis said. “But we have to offer it.”

Schools have some flexibility with choosing what vegetables to serve. For example, carrots meet the requirements of serving a red/orange vegetable, and schools can serve as much of them as they want. But the budgets of schools force cafeterias to limit how many options they serve daily. Schools don’t have to offer spinach, but they have to offer at least one dark green vegetable a week.

The large amounts of wasted food may not be all due to students not liking the taste. Kindergarten students have to receive the same amount of fruits and vegetables as a sixth-grader, despite simply being smaller and typically not eating as much.

“What we’re facing now is some of these unintended consequences,” said Sara Gasiorowski, who is the Mideast regional director for the School Nutrition Association, a national organization that represents 55,000 school food service workers. “We now have an opportunity to take a step back as we come to the end of the second year and judge what has been successful and what has not been successful.”

The federal law was approved by Congress in 2010 but is implemented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Any future rule changes would have to be made by that organization. The School Nutrition Association may try to lobby to lower the size of each serving of vegetables and fruits for a kindergarten student during the 2015 renewal of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, along with the requirement to serve whole-wheat pasta, which costs more than regular pasta, Gasiorowski said.

“I truly believe that once we continue this over the next few years it will become the norm, and students will start adapting and consuming these foods,” Gasiorowski said.

Sampling new foods

Schools are offering some fruits and vegetables to kids as samples, with two benefits: The students try something different and may find a new, healthy food that they like. Also, food service managers can get an idea of how well that item would go over if offered as part of a daily meal.

Wolf carried a bowl filled with asparagus around the Northwood cafeteria on Tuesday, offering free pieces to any student who wanted one. About 80 percent of the students in the cafeteria tried the vegetable, and most seemed to like it. But there were still some naysayers. One boy looked toward his friend and stuck out his tongue in disgust when hearing that asparagus was being passed out.

“Sometimes you have to fight that because if one kid is animated about not liking something, then the others at the table may not try the item,” Wolf said.

Second-grader Nin Romero was happy to take a piece of asparagus and said she eats that food at home frequently. Isaiah Norman thought the asparagus tasted OK and compared it to broccoli. Conner Diebold took a pass on trying the asparagus because he tried the vegetable in preschool and didn’t like the taste then.

Those three and their classmates see a new vegetable or fruit item on display every Monday, letting them know what will be sampled the following day. They also learn the benefits of eating that particular food.

Center Grove elementary school students will be given the opportunity to try new fruits when samples of fresh pineapple and blueberries are passed out next month, food services director Shannon Nesius said.

Schools are using these measures to hopefully adjust the diets of students while also testing new items for possible use down the road with the goal of preventing an assembly line of waste at the end of lunch periods.

Northwood students are supposed to dump only plastic wrappers and milk cartons into trash cans before returning their trays. While watching over the tray return line, a few students walked up without one bite left of the bean and rice mix, but Wolf was more skeptical than excited.

“They may have just dumped it in the trash can,” she said.

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