School district fights waste in lunch rooms

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) One of Kern County's biggest school districts is on the front line in the battle against waste in cafeterias. Critics complain a lot of food gets thrown away, but the Kern High School District is looking for more ways to make sure the right meals get to their students, and the kids actually eat them.

Food Service Director Sharon Briel says the job's gotten tougher since new federal rules went on the books in 2010, with some specific requirements for school lunches.

"Now the requirement is a cup of fruit for high school students, and a cup of vegetables every single day," Briel told Eyewitness News. She said that's what schools must offer the students, and the rule requires the kids must take at least a half-cup of fruit or veggies.

That's the challenge.

"So that when they have to take that half-cup, they don't just end up taking it to the trash," Briel says. "Because they didn't intend to eat it in the first place."

Hoping to convince kids to eat the good stuff, the KHSD is testing a new machine that packages handy, single servings of fruit and vegetables in clear plastic.

"This is actually going to be a little more user-friendly," Food Service Production Supervisor David Verrell said. He was standing next to the conveyor-belt type machine in the district's Central Kitchen.

Verrell said they've tried putting single servings out in paper containers or plastic, but these see-through packs may have more appeal. "If they can see all of it, they're going to be more apt to take it," he says.

Also, both Verrell and Briel hope the small, clear packs may end up being eaten, even after kids leave the cafeteria.

"They don't necessarily have to eat it at lunch," Verrell said. "They can throw it in their backpack, take it for after school." Any way it gets consumed -- that's good for the kids, and means the food's not going to waste.

Briel says it was the "Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act" passed by Congress that set the minimums for fruit and vegetable servings. She said another tool they're using is offering salad bars which have been donated to the high schools by various local groups.

The food supervisor said that's having a positive effect. When the students make their own salads, cafeteria workers say they see a lot less food getting tossed in the trash.

Critics worry about food left un-touched by kids, or what's called "plate waste." And, there's also the issue of food prepared in school kitchens that doesn't end up being served.

"The reality is that we have things that we're not able to serve again," Briel says. She said school cafeterias make their best guess each day how much food to prepare, and try to waste as little as possible.

Eyewitness News investigated whether that left-over food could be donated to local charities. In 2012, KHSD said they would look into that suggestion.

"In context and in theory, it's a very good idea that we can all believe in," Briel said. And, she says the district is still working out the logistics for any program like that. For one thing, transferring food to another group will entail making sure the food stays safe to eat.

"We've been working closely with our (Kern County) Health Department, and they've indicated that we can do this type of donation process," Briel said. "But the actual agreements between the district and agencies still is in process." She said that will have to include provisions like the charity having adequate refrigeration for any donated food.

The nation's school food programs cost taxpayers about $14 billion a year, according to published reports. It's also reported the U.S. Department of Agriculture itself estimates $1 billion worth of of that food gets thrown away each year.

The KHSD serves 24,000 meals a day, according to Briel. The district provides lunches, breakfast, and some after-school food.

Briel says it would be tough to find out how much of that food the students scrape off their plates and throw in trash cans. As for food prepared, which never gets served -- she thinks the district is holding the line on waste in that area.

"Our food costs -- which is how we monitor how well we're doing in the Kern High School District -- hasn't increased substantially," Briel said. "Which would mean that we're not wasting food."