The Other 60 Percent

Fruits, veggies often end up in school trash

LOVELAND – Between a third and a half of all the fruits and vegetables served to youngsters at some Loveland school cafeterias last year wound up in the trash, a study has found.

Researchers used photos of students' cafeteria trays to determine how much food was wasted.

Forget about leading horses to water. School officials are trying to figure out how to get their young diners to eat more of the healthy stuff that’s put on their plates.

“It’s not healthy until the kids eat it,” said Stephanie Smith, a dietitian and doctoral candidate at Colorado State University, who conducted the plate waste survey for Thompson School District. “This is important information for the schools to have so if they make some menu changes, they’ll have a way to evaluate whether those changes are effective.”

The results of the survey, which Smith says are comparable to nationwide findings, were delivered to the district board of education last month. The findings form the basis for a pilot project that will be launched this fall at Thompson middle schools. School officials will be trying some new strategies – including rearranging lunch schedules and serving lines – to get students to select more fresh produce at lunch.

“We’ll also try to do some outreach to families and to conduct more nutrition education with students,” said Tammy Rempe, director of nutrition services for the school district. “Consumption is so poor. Last year, we bought 215,000 pounds of fresh produce for our district elementaries. It’s sad to see all the fresh fruits and vegetables being thrown away. Even the canned stuff is eaten much better. I think they’re more used to canned products.”

Digital images a less messy way of recording waste

In the old days, researchers trying to assess how much school cafeteria food was wasted engaged in a messy process of scraping and weighing the uneaten food from every plate. Smith relied on a digital camera to avoid most of that.

Students at the participating schools – three elementaries, two middle schools and two high schools – brought their trays of food to Smith, who filled out index cards showing what selections each student made, then took photos of each tray. After they finished eating, instead of throwing their uneaten food away, they returned to Smith, who took more photos of the trays. Later, she could compare before and after photos for each student to determine just what percentage of each tray’s contents had been eaten.

“If we had a tray that was hard to estimate – say, a student played with his food and mixed foods together – then we’d bag that up and weigh it,” she said. “Since the district is very good about maintaining standard portion sizes, we can get to within 10 percent in estimating how much is eaten.”

See the plate waste percentages from three Loveland elementary schools.

Measuring the amount of milk the students drank was harder, since the milk containers aren’t see-through. So Smith poured leftover milk into a measuring cup.

Click on graphic to enlarge.

Plate waste was monitored during five randomly selected lunch periods at the elementary schools and four lunch periods at the middle and high schools. Between 150 and 200 trays were collected per school during each observation period.

At the elementary schools, nearly all the students took the offered entrée of the day and most of them opted for the canned fruit option. But fewer than half selected the fresh fruit or vegetable of the day. The students typically left 20 to 25 percent of their entrée uneaten. But at two of the three schools, the amount of fruit served that ended up in the trash topped 40 percent, while between 32 and 44 percent of the vegetables were thrown away.

The amount of uneaten food dropped significantly at the third school, however. There, just 29 percent of canned fruit, 25 percent of fresh fruit and 24 percent of vegetables went uneaten.

Timing of recess seems to make a difference

Why the difference? Smith suspects it’s because at that school, Cottonwood Plains Elementary, recess is scheduled before lunch. At the other schools, Sarah Milner and Winona, students eat before recess.

“What research has shown is that when recess is before lunch, kids are settled down,” she said, “and they’re hungry because they’ve been out playing, so they tend to eat more food.”

Milk consumption was also better at Cottonwood Plains. Only 18 percent of the milk went undrunk, versus 33 percent and 45 percent at the other two schools.

Recess matters
“What research has shown is that when recess is before lunch, kids are settled down and they’re hungry because they’ve been out playing, so they tend to eat more food.”
— Stephanie Smith, dietitian

At the middle schools, high levels of waste continued. While the amount of uneaten entrée averaged between 16 and 22 percent, nearly half the fresh fruit was tossed away uneaten, as was more than a third of the canned fruit.

And at one school, fewer than 20 percent of students bothered to take a vegetable at all. Of the few vegetables that were served, 36 percent didn’t get eaten. More students – nearly half – opted for the vegetable at the other school, but that statistic may be a bit skewed because potatoes was on the menu one day, and potatoes tend to be far more popular than other vegetables. Even so, 26 percent went uneaten.

At the high schools, waste declined, with almost all the entrees being eaten. But the proportion of fruits and vegetables that went uneaten ranged between 13 and 39 percent.

Results mirror what’s happening in other schools

Other key findings from the study:

  • At all grade levels, between a third to half the students cleaned their plates, throwing away no food at all.
  • Girls tended to waste more food than boys.
  • Younger students tended to waste more food than older students.
  • Students selected fruits and vegetables far less often than entrees and milk.

While the study measured only what a few hundred students ate on any given day, Smith says she’s confident the findings are representative of what happens across the district.

“From what I’ve seen, this is consistent with what’s seen elsewhere, and in other school districts,” she said.

Among the strategies Thompson officials will try this fall in the district middle schools is putting fruits and vegetables at the start of the serving line rather than in the middle, and giving the selections appealing, descriptive names.

“Also, we’ll have the cafeteria staff consistently verbally offering the kids the food,” Rempe said. “We hope that when we make the verbal offer, kids will be more likely to make the selection.”

aftermath

‘Emotionally exhausted’ yet inspired by students: A Memphis educator and gun-control advocate reacts to Parkland

Kat McRitchie, at right, appeared with mothers who lost children to gun violence at a rally outside the National Civil Rights Museum. Photo courtesy Kat McRitchie.

By the time America realized the scope of the school shooting that killed 17 people last week in Parkland, Florida, Kat McRitchie was already weary of responding to gun violence.

A Memphis educator and gun-control advocate, McRitchie had spent the evening before at a candlelight vigil for two Memphis teens gunned down near their high school the previous Friday. She’d spent the weekend reeling from that killing.

And as part of a group called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, she’d spent countless hours lobbying for policies that could stem the shootings that claim dozens of young people in her city every year.

“Honestly, my emotional reaction to Parkland was, ‘Ugh, this is terrible. Another school shooting,’ but I was emotionally exhausted by the weekend,” said McRitchie. “It wasn’t until Friday that I let myself listen to the video that the student in the closet had taken and let myself feel a response to that.”

The response, when it came, was one of familiarity. McRitchie, the daughter of a Memphis trauma surgeon who treated many gunshot victims, helps train teachers through Memphis Teacher Residency after years of working in city classrooms of her own.

“I can imagine what it feels like to be a student in that classroom,” she said. “I can imagine what it feels like to be a teacher in that classroom.”

Now, McRitchie is looking for ways to help Memphis join a national response to the Parkland shooting that appears to be gaining momentum, rather than dropping out of the headlines. We talked to her about those efforts, how her advocacy work intersects with her teacher training, the complexity of race in the gun-control debate, and more.

How teaching opened her eyes to the reality of gun violence in Memphis: “I never had a student who was shot when I had them, but I saw them walk through the deaths of their family and friends. There was this culture of what to do when someone you know gets shot. Here are the people you call. Here’s how you decide what picture goes on the T-shirt. Kids now choose a hashtag. How to pick the funeral colors. There was a process for when a teenager dies in the way that I would have a process for getting ready for prom. This was a big part of me understanding how gun violence is affecting my community.”

On the reawakened debate over whether teachers should carry guns: “Kids deserve for us to think more creatively than just increasing school security. I cannot think of a single public school teacher who thinks arming teachers is a good idea. I don’t know any teachers who would want to have a gun. I don’t know any teachers who think having a gun in this situation would make themselves or their students safer. All of them say the likelihood of an armed person entering their school for the purpose of a mass shooting is terrifying but extremely small. But how many times do teachers get their purses stolen in schools or drop their expensive calculators? If we have teachers with guns in schools, that just creates opportunities for accidents. Most school shootings now are things like that. More guns in schools will only mean more deaths in schools or more guns get stolen and end up on the street. Even the teachers who have a fear of mass shootings, if you ask them, all of the everyday things that can go wrong with guns in schools are scarier.”

On the outpouring after Parkland after seeing Memphis teens’ deaths go unnoticed nationally: “It can feel frustrating when we know that black children are way more likely to die than white children because of guns. But the thing that has surprised me a little bit is that of the survivors that I know in Memphis — who are predominantly women of color who have lost children to gun violence — I would not have been surprised if the response to the Parkland shooting was, ‘That’s sad, but we’ve been out here on the front lines.’ That is absolutely not the response.

“Every single survivor mom I know has posts about praying for Florida families, expressing grief and solidarity for Florida families. We recognize that gun violence affects people differently along race and class lines, just like education, but there’s just this very shared human experience in responding to the toll of gun violence. That’s one of the things that has been most moving in the last week: watching women respond with grief and not resentment.”

How her work as a teacher coach overlaps with gun violence advocacy: “Part of my work last week was to order coffee for teachers at the high school where the [Memphis] students were killed. Coffee and donuts in the teachers lounge seems a little silly, but Memphis Teacher Residency is all about ‘pursuing a vision of restored communities living with dignity and peace.’ Even going to the vigil for the kids last week, there were teachers there, and colleagues and community partners were there as citizens. One of my colleagues went to the funeral of the young man who was shot last week. When going to a funeral is part of our jobs as teachers — we shouldn’t tolerate that in this country.”

How Memphis Teacher Residency prepares teachers for violence in their communities: “We do have a counselor on staff. That’s one of the greatest services that MTR provides that our teachers and alumni are able to use. Lockdowns are fairly common — actual lockdowns — because of shootings in the area. I know he has walked teachers through, how does it feel going through your first lockdown, going through the death of students. We as coaches would like training about how to do that better when a school is touched by gun violence.”

On “red flag laws,” which would allow law enforcement to seize guns from people who haven’t actually broken any laws: “Moms Demand Action works really hard to promote common-sense gun policies. The thing that I’ve learned in this movement is that me complaining to my like-minded friends about something doesn’t change anything and just makes us angrier and doesn’t make us safer. But we all want our kids to grow up safe; we all want American schools to be safe places — we can actually agree about these things. By having solutions-minded conversations and pushing for evidence-based gun policy, we can reduce the number of Americans that die of gun violence.

One of the most common conversations that I had with teachers in the last week was, ‘Oh, I know who that kid would be.’ I could tell you from my own teaching experience that if something like that happened, it wouldn’t shock me. Teachers know kids. One option that would empower teachers with their specific knowledge is ‘red flag laws.’ We also know that they reduce suicide by guns.

“I would love for people to know that when the response is, ‘We knew that that person was dangerous,’ we can actually have more potential to stop mass shootings. This would be a great thing for teachers to know about and advocate for.”

What comes next: “Having kids leading the response to this particular moment is incredibly powerful. When kids are leading change, the sky’s the limit. Young people are more engaged and more creative than their elders. and I’m incredibly excited to follow the leadership of young people and to support them.

“And to listen to educators about how to respond to school shootings is imperative. Overwhelmingly, what educators are telling us is not what policymakers are telling us. And we should listen to educators.”

First Responder

Jeffco’s superintendent has some ideas about preventing school shootings — and none of them involve gun control or armed teachers

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

Superintendent Jason Glass of the Jefferson County school district isn’t interested in talking about gun control in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting.

Home of Columbine High School, Jefferson County is no stranger to these tragedies or their aftermath, and Glass doesn’t think calls for restricting firearms will get any more traction this time than they have before. Nor is he interested in talking about arming teachers, a proposal he considers just as much of a political dead end.

“A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it,” Glass wrote in a blog post published Monday. “We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about, he wrote. Glass lays out four ideas that he sees as more politically feasible and that might make a difference:

  • Put trained, armed law enforcement officials in every school
  • Increase funding and support for school mental health services
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security
  • Change the layout of and access to school buildings to make them safer, much the way we’ve renovated airports, stadiums, and other public facilities

Glass describes these measures as “proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today.”

Some schools and districts already have an armed police presence on campus or offer mental health services, but Glass argues these efforts need more money, more support, and more cohesion.

“These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need,” he wrote. “Congress and the President need to act and now. … Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.”

Of course, even studying something, as Glass envisions this new center on school safety doing, can be political. Since 1996, the federal government, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, has placed tight restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

The blog post provoked a vigorous debate in the comments. Some called on Glass to join the national movement demanding more restrictions on firearms. This is not a time for “half measures,” one woman wrote.

Others said that turning schools into “fortresses” would work against their educational mission and questioned how well school resource officers could be trained to respond appropriately to students with special needs – or how fair the district-level threat assessment process is.

In the wake of another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013, one largely forgotten outside the state, Colorado legislators passed a law that holds schools liable for missing warning signs in troubled students.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Bill Woodward, a former police officer who trains schools in how to prevent violence, said more schools are doing threat assessments. But their success may require schools to take even more seriously the idea that their own students might be dangerous.

“I think the biggest barrier is the climate of the school, because I think sometimes schools are just thinking in terms of working with students, helping students out,” Woodward told CPR. “And sometimes when you’re looking at someone who’s made a threat, you have to change to the Secret Service model.”

Woodward said a more comprehensive solution may involve gun control. Schools can’t afford to wait, though.

“There is no silver bullet, speaking metaphorically, but I think gun law changes may well be needed,” he said. “I just think we have to do what we can do now, and we can do things now.”