School lunches and waste


Two of these items are representative of what was served in the school lunch program and two represent what came from home-packed lunches. Can you properly identify which are which?

During the last several weeks of the school year I had the opportunity to participate in a program with the local primary school. I was the lunch buddy of a fifth-grader. I had a great time visiting with fifth graders during lunch. What I was not expecting was how much school lunch has changed since I graduated from high school fifty years ago.

School lunches have become a flash point with respect to nutrition guidelines and waste. One complaint is that there are very few fresh fruits and vegetables available. Another is that there are too many processed foods being served. In her Let’s Move Campaign, Michele Obama advocated more nutritious offerings. Frequently such calls require a specific formula–say not more than a given number of calories per meal, incorporation of certain levels of vitamins and minerals, and limits on sugar and salt.

I view the changes that have occurred in school lunches from what I ate for lunch to be profound. I remember friendly lunch ladies plopping cooked meats, veggies and some unidentifiable items onto ugly, green plastic trays with indentations to keep one food-like substance from slopping over on its neighbor. So much of that has changed. As an advocate of processed food, even I was surprised at how much prepackaged food is dispensed onto disposable black trays. Sometimes students are given fresh fruit, but most of the time it is a fruit cup in a plastic container. Burritos are individually wrapped as are jerky, cheese and many other items. Several of these children brought food from home, but many of these meals consist of prepackaged energy bars, chips or similar items. I did see someone who had brought from home what appeared to be a turkey sandwich.

The cleanup process is efficient. Lunch period lasts 25 minutes. Not long, but long enough for students to finish their meals. Classes leave one grade at a time as the students dump their trays, food and packaging waste, and plastic utensils into a large plastic trash can. Everything is disposable; nothing is reclaimed to be washed or recycled. The amount of waste generated that will go directly to the landfill is distressing. As most of the class lines up to march out of the cafeterium, the  lunchroom supervisor squirts the tables with water as designated students wipe off  spilled food and beverages while others sweep up the floors. Some helpers are better cleaners than others, but it an impressive operation.

These changes remind me of my experience in a class I took in graduate school. We had  seven two-week sessions, each with a different instructor. One of these sessions convened a mock hearing on the guidelines for television advertising of food products to children. Similar hearings were actually being conducted by a Congressional committee at the same time. By a strange quirk of fate, the class consisted of four female graduate students in nutrition, all of whom were in favor of the concept, and four male food science students all of whom were opposed. Then we went home to read the proposed guidelines. The class flipped with the nutritionists becoming strongly opposed and the food scientists strongly in favor. Why? Because what could and could not be advertised came down to formulas of specific nutrients. In that case, food scientists working for food companies could generally design specific products which meet specific formulas.  I learned that regulations are more easily enforced when dealing with numbers rather than broad general concepts like what is a healthy food. Give food companies and their scientists numerical targets, and they will triumph every time.

I have little special knowledge about how the guidelines were developed, but I know of one company that was designing products for the school lunch program before the final regulations became official. What I suspect happened here is that companies developed products that fit the federal mandates, and many schools, including the one I went to as a lunch buddy, found it easier to expand the number of processed foods in school than redesign their lunchrooms to provide more cooked foods and fresh fruits and vegetables. My goal here is not to criticize the school. Everyone I met was conscientious and doing a great job. I suspect that the a cafeteria staff feel underutilized, however. I think it says more about American society and our concepts of efficiency and economy than it says about the school.

Where do we go from here? I am not really sure. I can’t believe that I am nostalgic about my school lunch from the 60s! It wasn’t terrible, but the food wasn’t all that great either. I did make great buddies across the table back then too, and I could buy a prepackaged ice cream sandwich or a creamsicle for dessert if I wanted it. There was too much wasted food back then, and there is even more waste now. It also seems that we ate better than school children are eating today. Even though I am an advocate of processed food, I am squeamish about so much prepackaged food in school lunches whether in the line or brought from home. My assessment is that in the interest of providing guidelines for healthier meals, Big Food has taken advantage of the governmental regulations to design foods that fit them, and many schools have incorporated these products into their lunch programs to save costs. With the change in a federal administration and continuing pressures on school budgets, I don’t see any desire to remedy this situation anytime soon. We can be reasonably sure, however, that the formulas for lunchroom foods will remain.

From the question under the opening picture: a thawed and heated burrito (not the brand shown in the photo) and packaged fruit cup were part of the school lunch program while the corn chips and energy bar were brought from home.

Next week: A review of Cuisine & Empire by Rachel Laudan

9 thoughts on “School lunches and waste

  1. Georgianna,

    That information is very useful. Thanks. One recommendation is that at least half of a packed lunch should be fruit and vegetables. That would be good if the fruits and vegetables were consumed, but I am a believer of in-the-stomach nutrition rather than on-the-plate nutrition. Packaged food appears to eliminate the need to fire up the cooking equipment in the lunchroom kitchen. It seems like we are getting away from hot meals all together.

    Glad that you are enjoying the blogs. If you have suggestion for topics, let me know.


    1. Dr. Shewfelt,

      There are some great techniques to get students to eat more of the served fruits and veggies such as cutting them up and asking for their input (ex. Would you like an apple or orange today?). You have a very good point about the packaged food, especially considering that many cafeterias are vastly understaffed and under equipped. There are some grants to help with that, but many schools I have interacted with have commented on the need for more steamers and certainly the need for more help.

      I do also wish that there was more “from scratch” cooking both in homes and at schools, but with the resources available I’m just not sure it will be doable. Some of my colleagues are looking into more culinary training for school food service personnel which I think would make a huge impact… yet we need to consider interest too, without incentives, it often won’t happen!

      I study school snacks primarily which sounded good on paper but what we’re seeing is simple reformulations which has its merits, but that won’t change the eating habits overall. It’s a very interesting and controversial topic- I love it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dr. Shewfelt,

    I love your insightful comments. I have found much of the same in my research in schools surrounding the Smart Snacks standards. Schools are generally meeting these guidelines, but they aren’t doing it in an ideal fashion. Everything seems to be prepackaged. We need more fresh fruits and veggies… but this comes with a cost. Steamers, time, storage… we need to invest in equipment and education for the cafeteria staff!

    I’m enjoying the blog and reading your book as well. I can thank you for spurring my interest in food science. I often talk about you in my experimental foods course. Keep it up!


    1. Georgianna,

      Great to hear from you! Thanks for the comments. I think it will be very difficult to walk this one back. When did these changes occur? Was it gradual over the last 50 years or did it happen during the Obama administration?



      1. Hi Dr. Shewfelt!

        My apologies for the delayed reply, I didn’t get a notification. These happened under Obama as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. They accompanied the new lunch standards that were active in 2012. The snacks came later (2014) and received very little publicity (until recently). Interesting stuff!! I’m definitely citing many of your posts in my class. I love reading about it. Your latest one on “Badditives” will be so helpful!


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