An Examination Of The Relationship Between Plate Waste And Food Pairings In School Meals

Let Them Choose

By Jim Prevor, Editor-in-Chief, Produce Business

Sometimes we have to do research to confirm what we strongly suspect — in this case, if you serve the entrees children like best and pair them with the vegetables children like best, then the children are more likely to eat what is served — thus waste less than if you served less popular entrees and vegetables.

The question is: What does this mean for the school lunch program and, more generally, for produce industry efforts to interface with schoolchildren?

There is an argument to be made that these efforts are misplaced. In Britain, famed chef Jamie Oliver helped redesign the school lunch program in a healthier direction, but the kids so objected to the food that we soon had TV reports showing mothers sneaking food to their kids during recess.

Food waste, itself, is probably as much a function of serving policy as it is of foods offered. Although the authors are uncertain why children waste as much food as they do, we would say that the answer is pretty clear: The children are being required to put foods they don’t want on their plates. In a private school, not participating in the National School Lunch Program, just down the road from this magazine’s headquarters, the children used to walk down the cafeteria line and select which items they wanted on their plates. In order to boost vegetable consumption, the school changed policies and required that every student accept the vegetable and have it put on the plate. No research was done, so whether there was an incremental increase in vegetable consumption can’t be stated definitively, but the amount of food waste was so obviously increased that the whole project was abandoned.

There is something about the attitude with which this field is approached that treats children like prisoners or members of the army. The obvious alternative is to treat children as people, well able to make their own food choices. Then, those who want to urge them to eat healthier food have to actually do something difficult: educate children about making good choices and offer culinary options that are delicious, appealing and healthy.

The other thing to note is many of these initiatives are questionable both because children differ from one another in nutritional needs and because what exactly promotes health is controversial. For example, this columnist’s nephews were both in high school when the new guidelines were implemented. Both are more than 6 feet tall, both are highly athletic; one is a runner who clocks in several hours a day; the other is always playing volleyball, basketball and other sports. They are each thin as a rail. After practice, they would enjoy a Snapple beverage. After the switch to the new standards, the school only would sell Diet Snapple. What, precisely, is accomplished here? Certainly, my nephews have no need to restrict their caloric consumption. Is it so obvious to everyone that consuming aspartame is healthier?

In fact, the offer of the diet beverages indicates the whole effort is off kilter anyway. The real challenge is to retrain children’s palates to appreciate flavor profiles that are not instinctive. This is a big challenge. At home, conscientious moms have done this for generations both by educating their progeny and by identifying those specific healthy things their own children would want to eat.

Now at home, it is increasingly difficult as working mothers have to prioritize getting things done and rely on more processed foods. Diet beverages should, in theory, reduce caloric intake, but if the consumption of diet beverages trains the taste buds to like sweet things, they may lead to high-caloric consumption.

Looking to increase vegetable consumption is laudable, but if you are serving chicken nuggets, one might question the seriousness of the effort to serve healthy food.

And in back of all this, we have the trade’s primary school outreach effort, to get salad bars placed in every school. Salad bars have the great effect of showing respect to children by allowing them to choose their own foods. The produce industry likes them because the industry sees visible POs for items every week. But, we are dealing with children, and if the respect for autonomy in children is not combined with proper education — not just for what is good for you, but also for how to compose foods in a delicious and easy-to-digest manner — we may find that children turn themselves off fresh produce, because they don’t know how to compose foods in a way they will enjoy.

In this sense, getting children to stop wasting vegetables illustrates the challenge before the industry. It is not enough to change laws or rules and dump a big ratatouille on every child’s plate. We have to serve foods children enjoy, and if we want those foods to be healthy, we have to educate children both as to what is healthy and how to make the healthy delicious.