School cafeteria food may be healthier these days, but new research from Virginia Tech finds a lot of it is going to waste.
This past spring, the research team went into a Montgomery County elementary school (they're not allowed to reveal which one) for one week, where they weighed all of the school food one pre-K and four kindergarten classes threw away.
Now, rising junior Lindsey Kummer and Professor Elena Serrano are spending the summer compiling the data and analyzing it. Preliminary results show that 44 percent of the food served in the cafeteria during that week ended up in garbage cans.
"The tremendous amount of resources that go into getting food on a plate -- we're talking about growing, we're talking about transportation, processing, and then afterwards disposal -- when you think of all those inputs, it's just an inefficient use of resources," said Serrano.
They split the waste up into four different categories: entrees, milk, vegetables, and fruits.
Vegetables were the least popular food group -- particularly side salads, which were the single most thrown away item. 70 percent of all the vegetables served were tossed out by students.
44 percent of the milk, 40 percent of the entrees, and 30 percent of the fruits were also discarded.
They've determined the cost of the waste for the week was $219.99. While that may not seem like much, they say it's important to remember that's just for one grade level at one school for one week. When you broaden the scope, costs could be much higher.
"The quality of the food is great," said Kummer. "There was really no complaining from the kids. So I think it's other things that are causing the food waste."
Kummer says they noticed the students were more likely to throw fruits away when they were served whole rather than sliced.
She also says the cafeteria was very loud and it appeared the students were more interested in talking to each other than eating.
"It could be helpful if [the schools] can have quiet time during lunch, have taste tests during school, and really talk to the kids and see what is causing the great amount of waste," said Krummer.
Serrano says many times if a child doesn't eat a certain kind of food at home, they're apprehensive about trying it at school, which is why she says parents are an important part of this conversation as well.
"So to us it's really about consumption and waste," said Serrano. "But it's also trying to change some of the culture thinking it's okay to throw away so much food.
Kummer and Serrano hope to continue this research for the next several years and say they'd like to conduct similar studies in local middle schools and high schools.