May 16, 2012 8:46 PM by Nikki Ibarra

Central Coast schools try to tackle food waste in cafeterias

It's a California State Food Code. Anything that goes on a student's plate, touched or untouched, must be thrown away if uneaten.

According to the California Department of Education, schools across the state are reimbursed $2.77 per student for free and reduced lunches; that's whether they're eaten or thrown away, and it's all taxpayer money.

One thing that could be reused is food that's wrapped, but not if it's been microwaved.

At Pine Grove School in Orcutt, on average, about 15% of what goes on the kids plates is thrown away. That's according to Janette Wesch, the child nutrition director for Orcutt Unified School District. She said food tossing is a big problem with the elementary school children.

Wesch said it's a requirement to feed each kid the same amount of food, regardless of age or grade level. "We have to serve them even though we know they may possibly not eat them," added Janette.

And that, she said, contributes a lot to food waste. "When it gets to sitting on the table, they're too busy talking to their friends and then they want to go out to recess. So I do think sometimes they intend to eat it, but they don't," said Janette.

We went to the kitchen to see what was left over from lunch; a big tray of chicken fajitas, enough to feed 10 people, all to be thrown away. So, why not donate it to a shelter?

"The actual time and energy that it would take to put it aside and then wait for the food bank to come is not worth it," said Janette.

The fact the food has been heated limits schools to donate. Dr. Charity Toman of the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department said the risk of heated food carrying a foodborne illness is high.

"It's hard to know that a food carries this virus. The food smells the same, it looks the same, and you have no reasons to believe the food was contaminated with this virus," said Dr. Toman.

So, why don't the schools just make what they need? Well, just a couple of miles away, at Pioneer Valley High School, that's exactly what they do. "The next time we're going to run a particular item, we could see whether it could be a popular item or not," said Carla Hart, food services manager for Santa Maria Joint Union High School District.

At Pioneer Valley, about 5 to 8% of their food is thrown away daily. Chicken teriyaki was on the menu. Carla knew it was a popular item by looking at her lunch production record, so they already knew how much to make. "Generally, we don't get hit too hard," added Carla.

And, the same goes for the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District and the Goleta Union School District. Goleta throws away less than 5% of their food. Paso throws away less than 1%, because they record what's popular and what's not. Carla recommends all schools do this.

"If it's going in the garbage can it's not nutritionally going into their bodies. And, as I've said before, there's so many proven correlations between test scores and good nutrition," said Carla.

We spoke to a couple elementart schools and noticed it was a trend for them to have more waste than the high schools, since high schoolers eat more than children.


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