School Lunch

States Fight Back Against USDA Rules That Cause School Food Waste

Bad mandates result in uneaten foods. Schools figure out how to respond.


Cafeteria food
Kevin Cable / Dreamstime

The mountains of food waste that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National School Lunch Program causes are again making headlines around the country. Many of these stories show states and local school systems are frantic to figure out ways to address the program's wastefulness.

Food waste and the school lunch program are intimately linked. While former First Lady Michelle Obama—and her campaign to make school food healthier—is not responsible for creating the problem of food waste in our nation's schools, the law she championed, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, has made an already bad problem far worse.

"That directive is costing schools an added $5.4 million a day, of which $3.8 million worth of produce goes directly into the trash, according to national estimates," reads one recent editorial in a Connecticut paper chastising the USDA for all of the food waste its program creates. "A Harvard Public Health study found that 60 percent of the vegetables and 40 percent of the fruits are being tossed. Researchers at the University of Vermont found an overall increase of 56 percent in wasted food as a direct result of the mandate."

The current administration announced last spring that it would roll back some of the Obama administration's rules.

"If kids aren't eating the food, and it's ending up in the trash, they aren't getting any nutrition—thus undermining the intent of the program," said USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue in May.

Perdue's got all his facts right. But he's not telling even half the story.

"Since the reforms have taken hold, there's been a notable downward shift in the rates of students eating school lunches," I write in my book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable—in a lengthy chapter on the government's role in promoting food waste. "Students are voting with their mouths. According to federal government data, the USDA School Lunch Program served 258 million fewer lunches in 2014 than it did at its high point, in 2010. The number of students paying full price for school lunches today—now 8.8 million— is at its lowest point in recorded history. That's a drop of more than 50 percent in full-price lunch sales since 1970."

While the numbers continue to plummet and the waste piles up, states, counties, and individual school systems are implementing a variety of approaches to combat the latter issue.

In California, a new law will allow schools to donate uneaten food to charities in the state. "Under the new law, public schools can give their unopened packaged food, unopened milk cartons (kept cold) and uncut produce, like apples, to food banks and other charities," reports the L.A. Daily News. The law doesn't take effect until January.

The author of the California law, State Sen. Ed Hernandez (D), says he was inspired to introduce the legislation in part because the Los Angeles school system alone was "throwing away $100,000 worth of food a day." That translates to 600 tons of food being wasted by one school system each day.

Texas adopted a similar law that's already taken effect. Under that new state law, schools can "create food pantries on campus where they can store donated food as well as surplus food from the cafeteria." The schools can then redistribute the food to nonprofits that feed people in need.

Other states have implemented "share tables." (As a young kid, I always brought my lunch to school but also scoured my elementary school's share table for uneaten coleslaw, fruit salad, and peanut butter & Fluff sandwiches.)

Many individual schools are trying to reduce their food waste as best they can. In Vermont, some schools are composting school-lunch waste. At one Connecticut school, students may place unopened foods that would go to waste into a small refrigerator. Students are also free to take food from the same fridge. Any uneaten food is donated to a food bank. And in Alaska, a 300-lb. moose carcass, recently roadkill that might otherwise have gone to waste, made its way to the school lunch menu thanks to enterprising community members and the diligent work of "the students of Mrs. Boron's American Government class," who deboned the carcass in preparation for cooking.

Some school systems have opted out of the USDA program altogether. That's a start—as I've discussed in previous columns, including this one, and expand upon in my book. But that's only part of the solution.

States and schools alike can be commended for combating food waste in schools. But as long as the USDA spends billions on school-lunch policies that promote food waste, those states and school systems—along with opponents of food waste—are fighting a losing battle.

NEXT: Government Created the Housing Crisis. Government Can Solve It.

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  1. Fraud, waste, and abuse are not a bug, they are a feature.

    1. Sure, fraud, waste and abuse exist. But it’s definitely less than the wasteful profits that would be siphoned off by corporations in a privatized system.


      1. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

        This is what I do…

      2. Lets not be so dogmatic.

        I know of one tiny town, half between two other tiny towns, that hired the best cook in town for the cafeteria. Word quickly got around, and in short order the whole town was showing up for lunch. The town officials had to do some fancy foot work on space, liability and costing, but basically they privatized the school lunch program by hiring a very good cook.

    2. Here in Illinois the school boards look upon a trashcan full of expensive taxpayer purchased food as a victory every lunch.

    3. Over ordering, and the sending the extras on to mega-food banks is a slippery slope of turning food into an entitlement, weening people off of private sector food distribution and placing it squarely in the socialist line.

      Dimes to dozens it was the food pantries who pushed the laws that mainlined the school food supply lines into their warehouses.

      Over order…..sure, its only federal money… and goes to a noble cause.

  2. The purpose of these “healthy lunches for kids” is NOT to actually FEED the kids, as any moron can tell, because the kids aren’t actually EATING the food.

    The purpose of said foods programs is for Government Almighty “pubic servants” to feel all morally superior to the heathens who just flat-out REFUSE to eat as they should!

    Now go and eat your kale, spinnache, and broccoli salad!

    1. It’s not just moral superiority; if the school is mandated to buy this food that the kids just throw out, the food still gets bought…from the same agribusinesses who pay for the lobbyists who tell the USDA what to do. As long as you’re buying my broccoli, why do I care whether it gets eaten or thrown away?

  3. Reason would have our children eating ROADKILL.

    1. For the inner city school, why not recycle dead gang bangers into school lunches. Revolving door so to speak.

      1. Soylent G’s?

  4. Let them eat cake

    1. Carrot cake? No frosting?

      1. That’s just evil

  5. So,both Obama’s are idiots who think they can bend peoples behavior to their their whims? Really? I am shocked.

  6. OT:
    “Hillary Clinton warns cyberattacks are a growing danger to democracy”…..260156.php

    It’s not about her, you see, it’s about…
    Oh, wait!
    “Clinton painted her loss to Republican Donald Trump in November’s presidential election as the opening volley in what she called a new level of political warfare.
    Russian President Vladimir Putin and his intelligence services jumped into the 2016 presidential race “in a brazen assault … to throw an election to their preferred candidate,” she said.”
    With no evidence whatsoever. One of the few people who can make Trump look like a champ!

    1. Putin fixed the election by exposing how I was trying to fix the Primary. The latter being the only provable fact.

    2. Has anyone pointed out that all the information Russia needed was probably easily available, unencrypted, on the private server in her closet?

    3. Hillary Clinton has become a Bircher, I see.

  7. The question remains, do the homeless want this crap?

  8. I can understand the kids not wanting to eat the healthy food. I don’t understand why this would cause massive waste. Is there some reason that the schools continue to buy much more food than the kids eat? If they only eat five crates of carrots a week, order only five crates a week. It’s not hard to figure out how much of a given food they’ll actually eat. Who elected Micheal as the national school cafeteria Zarina?

    1. I don’t know if this is the policy everywhere, but I remember as a volunteer helping to serve food to kids in a summer program that was federally subsidized, and each kid HAD to take a serving of everything that was offered on their first pass through the line, so if it was chicken nuggets, green beans and applesauce, they’d get one serving of each on their plate, and then eat the nuggets and apple sauce, throw out the green beans, then get back in line for seconds on the chicken nuggets and applesauce.

      I figured it was just a way to funnel federal dollars to the green bean producers as a thank-you from the politicians they’d bought.

    2. The problem is that the rules don’t allow for student’s to say “no thank you” to items they don’t want. If Johnny hates cooked carrots, they will still give him a ladle full of them. The food being thrown away isn’t at the lunch lady side, it’s at the post consumer side–the kids emptying their trays that contain healthy food that they don’t want.

      In the past, school cafeterias actually made their own food, and that food matched local customs. When I taught in a very poor school, there wasn’t much thrown out, partly because the students were hungry, but partly because the lunch ladies made food that they liked (using the ingredients given them by the USDA). Now, most school cafeterias just heat up whatever Sysco or some other corporation produces based on the guidelines provided by the USDA, not based on what kids actually will eat. The problem is the food the lunch ladies made was higher in fat and sodium than the Michelle Obama era guidelines allow.

  9. Mengetahui pada berbisnis yang berkompetitif, tentunya perlu sekali untuk mendalami dan mengerti secara sungguh-sungguh untuk hal-hal yang berkaitan dalam dunia bisnis yang di jalani. Dalam pengetahuan dasar-dasar bisnis catering dan jenis utama layanan usaha catering akan di jelaskan dibawah ini.

    Deskripsi perusahaan bagian dari nama, alamat usaha, owner atau pemilik bisnis, pengetahuan terhadap bidangnya, serta jenis penyedian catering balikpapan.
    Keistimewaan ialah perusahaan memiliki nilai lebih dari perusahaan lainnya.
    2. Bagian Struktur Organisasi
    Untuk mengerjakan catering balikpapan sendiri tentunya tidaklah mudah sebab bisnis catering ini banyak kegiatan yang dikerjakan contohnya menyajikan konsumsi, sistem rencana terhadap seminar, mengirim hidangan, mengatur petugas-petugas catering dan sebagainya.
    3. Pemasaran
    Niat berbisnis pasti ada target pasar masing-masing. Perusahaan yang menekuni dan memastikan strategi pemasaran dengan bagus dan efektif pastinya perusahaan tersebuat bakal cepat berkembang serta cepat menguasai target pasar yang ada.

  10. “Students are voting with their mouths”

    Oooh, that’s my LEAST favorite kind of voting…

  11. A sign of the times when someone needs to pass a law to let schools donate left over food; no one can solve a problem without government permission first.

  12. Great, now the libs are passing laws to move food bought under the school funded lunch program to feeding the homeless. I wonder if the funds to do so are also shifted from homeless programs to school programs as reimbursement, or have the libs found yet another way to waste school tax dollars? No wonder it costs the US thousands of dollars more per year to “educate” a student. Now we feed the needy with school funds.

  13. Having grown up in a semi-rural area in Alabama, it was commonly known in the 1970/1980s that the cafeteria ladies took the thrown out food and gave it to their hogs. They’d be in hog heaven in today’s schools.

    1. For decades, pig farmers would send wagons through the streets, picking up food waste from restaurants, which saved them from disposal costs. But Noble Fools passed laws that pigs couldn’t eat left over food.

      Too many laws.

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