New nutritional guidelines bring more vegetables, potential for waste
Under a clear sky and blazing sun, Tristen Huff, a junior, picked plump, yellow pear tomatoes from the garden at Chana High School on Wednesday.
A few lush, green rows over, Devon Harrison, a senior, harvested fat, red tomatoes under the close supervision of Don Joye, the agriculture teacher at Chana.
Nearby, pumpkins swell out of their patch and a flock of chickens and their chicks peck around a small area where students pack up the day's harvest to be delivered to a nearby church.
But the church isn't the only place the produce at Chana ends up.
"Right now things are pretty strong here in the garden. We're here to supply fresh picked vegetables this time of year to help out the schools," Joye said.
Joye and his students provide between 20 and 30 pounds of tomatoes of multiple varieties to the Placer Union High School District every week.
Lila McAllister, nutrition director for the Placer Union High School District, said she takes all the extra produce she can get these days, especially from local growers, like the students at Chana. McAllister has also started buying produce from farms in Nevada City and Boorinakis Harper Ranch in Auburn.
Under the US Department of Agriculture's Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which took effect July 1, schools have to serve students a certain amount of specific kinds of vegetables and fruits with every lunch. Before, students could pick and choose which fruits and vegetables to take.
"I've had principals come up to me and say ‘wow, there are a lot of vegetables going in the garbage,' and unfortunately that's what happens with this because the kids don't have the choice of whether or not to take it," McAllister said.
The new law only impacts school lunch programs for now and breakfast programs will change in 2014.
Caloric intake is limited under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in that Kindergarten through fifth-grade students get between 550 and 650 calories for lunch. Grades sixth through eighth will be served a lunch of 600 to 700 calories and high school students get between 750 and 850 calories.
On the front line at Placer High School, cafeteria workers said some students are buying more than one lunch.
"These high school boys, they have some big appetites," said Marcene Rossiter, a cafeteria worker at Placer High.
Others note that some of the fruit students have to take is being thrown away either uneaten or with one bite taken out of it. Denise McCarthy, cafeteria manager at Placer High, said her produce bill has increased to $500 per week.
"I don't know why we have to force it on them if they're just going to throw it in the garbage," said Sue Westover, another cafeteria worker.
To cut down on the amount of waste, McCallister said tables have been set aside at all of the high schools to encourage students to return uneaten fruit.
Rossiter added that some students appreciate the spinach added to the salad bar; others miss the garlic bread sticks that have been replaced with whole wheat rolls or the puffy, white pizza crust that has been replaced with whole wheat crust.
An increase in waste at the school level falls in line with the amount of food that is wasted in the home. Around 40 percent of the food in the US is wasted, according to an analysis by the National Resources Defense Council. That's a 50 percent increase since the 1970s and produce spoilage is one of the key factors that contribute to the amount of wasted food, according to the report.
At the elementary and middle school level, Diane Brooks, with the Auburn Union School District, said salad bars have been eliminated, which has cut down on some of the waste because all of the fruits and vegetables come pre-packaged now.
"It's kind of like a buffet where you put way more on your plate than you're going to eat," Brooks said. "I think because the lines at the garden bars were so big kids would just grab things quickly to move through the line and then it would sit on their plate."
Since the new nutrition standards have been enforced, she said the amount of students who pay for lunch has dropped 14 percent from last year while her produce bills have increased.
"My produce bills have at least doubled, maybe even tripled," Brooks said.
McAllister said the amount of students who pay for lunch has dropped off slightly in her district, as well, but she expected it. She hopes to draw those students back in with new entrees.
"It has been an interesting transition for my staff and the kids seem to be OK with what has changed, but we've had some kids, mainly the bigger guys, saying they're not getting enough to eat because the portions are smaller for them," McAllister said.
Contact Amber Marra at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Amber_AJNews.