Strategic Low Cost Tips to Reduce Food Waste

Recent Research Tells All

Stop by your school’s cafeteria during the next meal service. Observe the students walking towards the trash can.  How much of the plate are they throwing away?

As school nutrition professionals (and some of us, parents), we understand the struggle of getting our kids to eat fruits and vegetables. There’s a balancing act between food components that must be selected to build a reimbursable meal (under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP)) versus what the students will actually eat.

Offer vs. Serve

Offer vs. Serve (OVS) is the provision added to NSLP and SBP with the primary goal of decreasing food waste in school cafeterias. OVS allows students to decline certain food options they would not eat anyways and in turn, reduce food waste. During lunchtime, schools under OVS are required to provide students all 5 of the necessary food components. The components are as follows: meat/meat alternative, grains, fruit, vegetables, and milk. A student must take at least 3 of the 5 components for their meal to reach the reimbursable status. 1 of the 3 minimum components selected must be at least ½ cup of either fruit or vegetable.

After the USDA mandate requiring students to take a fruit or vegetable, research shows food waste in some school cafeterias increased. It’s truly a shame for our children’s food to end up in the trash for many reasons. An estimated 15% of the U.S. population (that’s over 42 million people in America alone) are food insecure. The USDA defines food insecurity as, “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods”.

Furthermore, the chain of operations required to get food on the student’s plate is quite complex. Wasted food leads to wasted money in your school nutrition operation- and we are all aware how extremely tight budgets are in schools. The process all starts with Menu Planners creating recipes and assigning menus to the menu calendar. That leads to the production orders, delivery, and of course the meal preparation by school nutrition staff. That’s a lot of work and labor hours all for nothing. What can we do? Well, there’s great news! Recent research helped determine best practices to follow regarding offer vs. serve and reducing food waste. Better yet, these tips are easy and low cost!

Let’s start by reviewing a handful of issues which can lead to food waste:

  • Students don’t like the taste
  • Too difficult to eat
  • Not enough time in the lunch period
  • Food does not have optimal presentation
  • Students aren’t hungry (sometimes the lunch period is at an odd hour)

Give Me the Tips!

Two professors, Dr. David and Dr. Wansink, at Cornell University started Smarter Lunchrooms Movement with the goal to reduce waste, increase participation, increase consumption of nutrient-rich food, and an overall increase for student satisfaction in school cafeterias. Their research provides schools with low-cost tips to decrease food waste:

  • Double fruit sales! Place fruit in colorful bowls (rather than plain steel trays)
  • Increase fruit consumption by over 70% by slicing fruit instead of offering whole
  • Ask your staff to recommend students take a fruit. This simple action effected
    in a 70% increase in the number of students taking the fruit AND actually eating it
  • Increase fruit and vegetable consumption by 54% by scheduling recess before lunch
  • Place vegetables in more than 1 location for an increase of 40% in vegetable consumption
  • Raise consumption by 30% by creatively naming healthy menu items

Presentation, naming, and placement all play a huge role in the psychology of the student’s mind to eat fruit and vegetables. Uniquely preparing the fruit and vegetables, such as slicing or cutting into fun shapes can also have a major change. We may not take the time to realize that simple difference can be significant for a student with braces and shift their decision making process.

Simply offering more fruit and vegetable options is also likely to reduce food waste. As students are required to take one to make their meal reimbursable, providing more options gives a higher likelihood that the student’s preferred fruit and vegetables are available that day.

How Can PrimeroEdge Help?

We strive to add features in our software solution to reduce costs and food waste for your district!

SchoolCafé is PrimeroEdge’s exciting new child nutrition platform which engages students and parents like never before. Use PrimeroEdge Menu Planning in conjunction with SchoolCafé to publish all your menus in a single click. Alongside many other features, SchoolCafé allows students to rate and favorite school food and provide feedback for your school nutrition operation. If a menu item is consistently low-rated, you may decide to stop producing it, which will reduce food waste!