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USDA’s School Lunch Choice Works!

July 9, 2019

As a part of its USDA funded Implementing Food Waste, Organics, and Manure Management in Rural Maryland Communities, NERC worked at Westernport Elementary School to implement a Cafeteria Waste Reduction Plan. With NERC’s assistance, the school adopted “waste free lunches,” “Offer versus Serve,” and a pilot food scrap composting program.

School lunch Choice or “Offer versus Serve (OVS)” is a program promoted by the US Department of Agriculture in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. The goals of OVS are to reduce food waste in the school meals programs while letting students decline foods they do not intend to eat. School cafeteria planners also find that the program reduces meal preparation time and costs through better planning.

At lunch, schools must offer students all five required food components in at least the minimum required amounts. These components are: meats/meat alternates; grains; fruit; vegetables; and fluid milk. Under OVS, a student must take at least three components in the required serving sizes. One selection must be at least ½ cup from either the fruit or vegetable component.

At breakfast, schools must offer students all three required food components in at least the minimum required amounts. The components are: grains (with optional meats/meat alternates allowed); juice/fruit/vegetable; and milk. Under OVS, a student must be offered at least four food items and must select at least three food items, one of which must be a half cup of fruit or vegetables.

OVS Implementation

Westernport Elementary School is a pre-K to 5th grade school in Westernport, Maryland. There are 254 students, 13 Teachers, and 34 support staff. The town of Westernport has a population of 1,888. During the first year of NERC’s project, staff held two trainings on food waste reduction and composting at Westernport Elementary School, and conducted a cafeteria waste audit in April 2018. During an onsite visit in May, a discussion with teachers and cafeteria staff at Westernport focused on ways to implement food waste reduction at the school. NERC researched options and program examples, resulting in a cafeteria waste reduction plan presented to the school. 

At the beginning of the new school year, NERC met with the school’s principal and third grade teacher, Sarah Llewellyn, who agreed to be the onsite coordinator assisting with implementation of cafeteria waste reduction.  It was agreed that the school would move forward with promotion of cafeteria “offer vs. serve” lunch choice to third thru fifth graders at the school; promotion of “zero waste” lunches; and composting one day per week with the third grade lunches. A “Parent/Guardian Letter,” drafted by NERC, was sent home with students to let parents know about the new waste reduction efforts and provide tips on “waste free” lunch preparation for parents packing their child’s lunches.

OVS proved relatively easy to initiate. Cafeteria staff were very much in favor of the program and had knowledge about how it operated. Homeroom teachers review the lunch choices with the students and there are menus with the lunch options at the cafeteria entrance. The number of students choosing each option is called into the Cafeteria Manager so that she can prepare accordingly.

Just prior to their scheduled lunch period, students are reminded of their “choice” and line up according to their choices – “One,” “two,” or “three.” The child at the head of each “choice” line is given a sign with their respective number on it and all students choosing that number line up accordingly.

The goals of “waste free” lunches were discussed with all students, teachers, and staff. Waste free tips, including taking only a straw if needed and taking one napkin at a time, are reinforced by cafeteria monitors. This has proven successful for reducing straw and napkin use.

Composting during the Third Grade lunch was initiated on October 31, 2018. The third graders compost every Wednesday. Student “compost monitors” are chosen each week to assist other students and to transport the collected food scraps out to the compost bins. The school had also constructed a raised bed for starting a garden. 

On April 26, 2019, NERC returned to the school. In the morning the students examined their finished compost using hand lenses to look for insects present in the compost. NERC engaged them in a question and answer discussion about composting. The students were quite knowledgeable about the composting process. By the end of April, 170 pounds of cafeteria waste had been composted by the third graders.

NERC also conducted another cafeteria waste audit during the site visit. Through its waste reduction efforts, the school had reduced its food waste 40.5%.

OVS Success

Through the “offer vs. serve” program at Westernport, not only was the cafeteria waste reduced, the kitchen also reduced waste and costs by better planning and preparation. The system initiated allows the cafeteria to know how many lunches to prepare under each “lunch choice.” The students find it easy to make their choice once presented with the daily lunch options available. The use of numbered signs (#1, #2, #3) signifying the students’ choices was easily and inexpensively implemented. The students are accustomed to lining up for the cafeteria, so they simply line up behind the student carrying the sign with their choice.

Ongoing reminders during the lunch period have also helped students to remember to only take one straw and one napkin, allowing for significant reductions of these items ending up in the trash. Also, many parents who prepare lunches for their children have supported the “waste free” lunch ideas provided to them in the NERC drafted “Parent/Guardian Letter” sent out by the school’s principal.

Ms. Llewellyn’s activism and dedication to creating a more sustainable school were rightfully rewarded with her winning of “Teacher of the Year.” The independent panel that awarded her the recognition did so because of this dedication. She now moves on to the statewide completion for Maryland “Teacher of the Year.” The principal, teachers, and students at Westernport deserve similar recognition.

For more information, contact Athena Lee Bradley, Projects Manager.

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