ON THE PICTURE : Giving students a choice of foods to choose from in the cafeteria leads to better nutrition and less food waste.
by David Goldstein
As the pandemic grew, classrooms closed, but across most of Ventura County, school cafeterias remained open. For several months, some school staff worked harder than ever. Cafeteria workers collected and distributed “to-go” bagged meals to the children. This provided essential nutrition for health and fueled brains engaged in remote learning, but it also created packaging waste and food waste.
Now that children are back in school, many school cafeteria staff have reverted to much more efficient methods. To reduce waste, these cafeterias practice “offer versus serve” food distribution.
Linda Jordan, public information officer for the Ojai Unified School District, explained, “Children have a choice. Passing by the fruits and vegetables, they can pick one up, or they can visit the salad bar. Giving kids choices, rather than providing a pre-selected meal on their tray, “results in both better nutrition and less food waste,” she said.
“Share tables” are another waste reduction practice in many schools. After making their choices, some children still do not eat the foods they have selected. Rather than throwing their trash in the trash, kids place unwanted but unopened food or milk cartons on a sharing table somewhere others can take them away. Kids who aren’t signed up for free lunches, or kids who just want more, can grab whatever they want from the tables.
Sharing tables are encouraged by regulators, according to Graciela Garcia, who manages food inspections for Ventura County’s Division of Environmental Health. “As long as it’s done safely. . . [measures such as share tables] reduce waste and provide food to those in need,” she said.
Nance Shirley, food service supervisor for the Pleasant Valley School District, pointed to a minor challenge for school waste reduction programs. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Children Act of 2012, championed by Michelle Obama, established federal requirements for children’s lunches, requiring each child to receive specific categories of food. This is one of the reasons “offer versus service” involves choices, rather than just a buffet line. This is also a reason why in some neighborhoods the sharing table is in the food court area, but technically outside of the designated cafeteria area. As long as the child left the cafeteria with the piece of fruit or the carton of milk, he received the item. The school cannot be expected to ensure that the child consumes it.
Instead, schools have other ways to make sure kids are eating healthy. “Our staff have gotten pretty good at incorporating fruits and veggies into entrees,” Jordan said.
“There’s a lot of variety between school districts, and even when a district has a waste reduction program, it’s often up to the principal to decide if and how it’s implemented,” said analyst Lisa McCullough. environmental resources at Ventura County Integrated. Waste Management Division. Helping schools set up recycling programs, she worked with children on the first step in planning better waste management practices; she asks children to categorize and quantify their school’s waste stream. “In schools where milk is one of the mandatory items children must bring to meet federal funding requirements, full or partially full milk cartons are typically the largest and heaviest component of the stream. waste,” she said.
In many schools, shared tables are not enough to handle the volume of unopened milk cartons, and in some of these schools, cafeteria staff wash unopened cartons and put them back in the refrigerator before the milk is released. been out too long. In some cases, the ice pads on the shared tables keep the items at the required temperatures before the items are returned to the refrigerators.
Although rare, some schools donate leftover food to food pantries or a food bank. Garcia noted that the California Code of Regulations’ Retail Food Code specifically allows local educational agencies, including the county office of education, a local school district or charter school, to donate “to a food bank. or to any other non-profit charitable organization for distribution.”
Spirit of Santa Paula, which operates a shelter, recently sent a refrigerated truck to collect 64 cartons of unused yogurt nearing their expiration date but still safe to eat from a school cafeteria.
The lessons of waste reduction in schools can be applied at home. For meals with guests, or even just with your own family, you’ll generate less waste if you let everyone choose their own foods and portions, rather than handing out and serving food.
David Goldstein, environmental resources analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency, can be reached at [email protected] or 805-658-4312.