How can you curb produce waste from school lunches?Students apparently need much more convincing to eat fruit and vegetable options in school meals.

About 25% of students who selected fruits and vegetable tossed them in the trash, according to a study by the University of California-Los Angeles and Los Angeles County Department of Health. The study, tracking lunch habits of Los Angeles middle school students, suggests that more fruit and vegetable variety — and giving students input on menu choices — would help boost consumption.

The district is the second-largest in the U.S., and more than 40% of the 650,000 students in the system are obese, according to state researchers.

The study followed student behavior in the fall of 2011, when updated school lunch standards featuring more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and healthy ethnic foods were implemented in Los Angeles County. Researchers tracked leftovers after meals were served (production waste) and what students chose but didn’t eat (plate waste).

The study, published online by Preventive Medicine, found that 10.2% of fruit and 28.7% of vegetable items prepared at the four schools were leftovers.

Of the 2,228 students observed, 32% did not take a fruit item and 40% did not choose a vegetable as part of the meal. About one-third of the girls and one-half of boys did not take any produce item, and about 25% of those who did threw them away without taking a single bite.

Boys consistently threw away more fruit and vegetables without tasting them than girls, according to a news release about the study.

The study said waste of fruits and vegetables is substantial, but that can be reversed with a good selection of high-quality fruits and vegetables in a salad bar setting can reduce plate waste, said Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.

“If you give kids four, five, six choices, I don’t think there will be a single kid who doesn’t take something,” he said.

Study co-author William McCarthy, professor of health policy and management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said increasing students’ consumption of fruits and vegetables is challenging, but with the rising rates of obesity “getting students to expand their range of acceptable fruits and vegetables is an important goal.”

Researchers recommend several strategies to boost demand:


  • Involve students in menu decisions;
  • Offer a variety of fruits and vegetables;
  • Schedule recess or physical education classes before lunch;
  • Encourage students to participate in a school garden program; and
  • Promote the new school menu choices.