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’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

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

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede