First Person

Fruits, veggies often wind up in school trash

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.

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.

School lunch waste illustration.
PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Researchers used digital photography as a less messy way to determine how much food students wasted.

“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.

Middle schoolers to pilot new food approach

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.”

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, though, 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.”

This chart shows plate waste averages 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.

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, 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.

Middle schoolers keep tossing food

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, 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, and 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 were 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.

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.”

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.”

Other findings

  • 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.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.