HOUSTON — The big plastic trash can at Briscoe Elementary got a workout during lunch on a recent school day.
Kindergartners plopped more than a third of their lunches into the bin. Left uneaten: an untouched-looking cup of carrots, half a cup of corn kernels, a roast chicken breast with only a few bites taken, an almost empty cup of pineapple chunks. More carrots. More corn.
“Plate waste,” that uneaten food is called, and on that day, Briscoe students actually discarded far less than most schools. According to a recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health, 65 percent to 75 percent of vegetables served with school lunches are thrown out, along with 40 percent of the fruit.
Figures like those lie at the heart of the war heating up between first lady Michelle Obama and congressional Republicans over whether schools should be allowed to opt out of nutritional requirements imposed by federal law.
“The last thing we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids’ health,” Michelle Obama said Tuesday at a meeting with school nutrition officials, according to The Associated Press.
Supporters say it’s only reasonable to require that schools in the federally subsidized program serve every student at least one fruit or vegetable, and that meals be heavy on whole grains and light on sodium. They note that the Harvard study shows kids are consuming more fruits and vegetables since the requirements were enacted in 2012, and that the waste is no higher than before.
The Houston Independent School District, largest in the area, said it has not performed a controlled study, but casual observations reveal no higher rate of waste since the rules took effect.
Opponents of the requirements say that’s not what they’ve observed. Too often, they say — particularly in high schools — expensive healthy food simply lands in the trash.
The controversy boils down to a question every parent faces: Is it possible to get kids to eat their vegetables? And if so, how?
“Food Services recognizes that it’s not enough to put healthy food on the tray,” Jennifer Lengyel, a nutrition educator and dietitian for HISD, said after lunch at Briscoe, as volunteers set up “Veggie Fest” in the cafeteria. “Kids have to know what these foods are, and why they’re good for them, so that they can enjoy them.”
These days, she notes, fewer kids receive those lessons at home. Cooking from scratch is rarer than it was only a couple of decades ago. And lower-income families, in particular, are increasingly likely to buy dinner at a fast-food restaurant or convenience store.
So it falls to schools to introduce kids to fruits and vegetables. For instance, Lengyel says, many HISD students don’t recognize fresh pears on the school lunch line; they think they’re “funky green apples.”
Demographics alone suggest that the problem would be acute at Briscoe, a southeast Houston campus where roughly 98 percent of students are Hispanic and 94 percent are low-income. But Briscoe is also one of 27 sites where the Houston-based foundation Recipe for Success runs its “Seed-to-Plate” program, which offers nutrition education.
About once a month, students garden or cook with Sarah Tanner, a Recipe for Success employee. “You wouldn’t believe, out in the garden, how many kids will pop a raw green bean in their mouths,” Tanner says.
At Veggie Fest, volunteers set up stations with labels such as “Edamame from Japan” and “Jicama from Mexico.”
Once the kids poured in, the cafeteria thrummed with activity. At the papaya table, kids tossed toy vegetables onto a tic-tac-toe game; at the cauliflower station, they played veggie bingo. Blindfolded, they sampled kiwifruit and blackberries. Most tables offered taste tests of things like Asian pears, or shredded Brussels sprouts tossed in olive oil and salt. And the kids happily ate them all.
Sadly, the professionals note, such activities aren’t enough to create a healthy eater.
“It takes 10 to 20 tastings for a child to decide that they like a food,” Lengyel told the Houston Chronicle. “Maybe they try it fresh one day, cooked the next.”
That trying-out period and the need for food education pose a problem for schools, notes Houston-based blogger Bettina Siegel, a nationally known figure in the small world of school lunch reform.
When introducing kids to healthy foods, she says, “there’ll be an inevitable period of waste and loss. Anybody could see that coming.” But the “grossly underfunded” nutritional requirements didn’t come with a financial cushion to help schools weather the break-in period, she said.
For Melanie Konarik, Spring ISD’s director of child nutrition services, the economics are grim. For a student who qualifies for “free lunch,” her district is reimbursed only $3.01 per lunch. Not only are fresh foods significantly more expensive than frozen ones — this year, Spring paid 28 percent more for produce — but preparing and handling them is far more labor-intensive.
Next year, unless she’s allowed to opt out of requirements to lower sodium and use 100 percent whole-grain products, she expects that more paying students — those who help her bottom line — will choose not to buy a school lunch.
Konarik says she can’t tell whole-wheat pizza from the one with regular crust. “But the kids don’t like it. Kids who used to like cheeseburgers won’t eat them with whole-grain buns. And chicken nuggets with whole-grain breading?
She’s had luck, she says, with broccoli, peppers, and anything that kids can dip in low-fat ranch dressing. And she loves watching kids try fresh fruit, such as peaches, for the first time.
But on the lunch line, she says, some other foods simply fall flat: “It’s a requirement that we serve beans sometimes. But kids won’t pick them up at school. Not until there’s a way to make them gas-free. They get teased.”
Konarik is a board member of the School Nutrition Association, a group that once backed the requirements, but is now lobbying for exemptions and more flexibility.
Siegel, the Lunch Tray blogger, argues that allowing districts to opt out amounts to gutting the requirements. But even Siegel, who has worked closely with HISD’s Food Services Department, understands the pressures those requirements put on professionals who make cafeteria decisions.
Still, she maintains, it’s important for schools to hold the line — in part because they may be providing the only nutritional education that students will get.