Money Well Spent?

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I often think of how life continually evolves and the systems that evolve or should evolve with it. Medicine, transportation, technology, and agriculture are examples of areas where evolution resulted in greater efficiency, ideally less waste and greater service provision. In our professions we must evolve to stay current and relevant. If we choose not to evolve, we will probably find ourselves phased out in favor of innovative, efficient, and effective replacements. It’s odd that education has not fully evolved with the times. The lack of comprehensive evolution in education is concerning.

While I could address academics yet again, this time I am addressing nutrition, specifically free breakfast and lunches served in our public schools. Meals served in schools can be a touchy topic. Who doesn’t want to ensure all children are properly fed every day? Who would argue that feeding children is NOT a good idea? Children SHOULD eat every day and feeding children IS a good idea. My question is, are schools efficiently feeding children? I think the well-intentioned effort of schools to ensure children are fed has lost its efficiency and effectiveness, if it ever existed in the first place. 

The National School Lunch Program REQUIRES students to take a starch, vegetable, meat, fruit, and milk for lunch, unless an allergy is involved. Students receiving free lunches can’t refuse any of it. On too many occasions I have heard cafeteria staff say, “I have to give it to you, don’t eat it, just throw it away.” By the second week of school, kids learn the drill and stop protesting what they don’t want on their trays. As you can probably imagine, a high percentage of student meals go straight to the trash unopened or untouched. Fruit, milk, juices, sometimes entire trays, in the trash.

To add insult to injury, staff is not allowed to save, reuse, or send home anything the kids don’t eat. Fortunately, many staff members do rescue food before it goes in the trash and sends it home with students, takes fresh fruit to parent or staff lounges, or donates the milk locally. We are funding schools to give food to students to throw away because they are mandated to have it whether they want it or not. Essentially, our children are being trained to throw perfectly good, sometimes unopened food in the trash. 

In 2020, the USDA spent $10.4 billion on free and reduced cost breakfasts and lunches. According to a 2021 survey conducted by Penn State, 50% of school lunches are thrown out. Fifty percent! Since we know the tremendous waste of school meals, maybe USDA policymakers should revisit how the school nutrition program is run. This level of waste is unfair to taxpayers and is poor stewardship of the food we are blessed as a nation to have. Half of $10.4 billion could go a long way in our public schools. Perhaps that $5.2 billion that could be saved could be used to address the persistent literacy crisis we are experiencing.

Dr. Teresa Sanders
Dr. Sanders is an international bestselling author, education researcher and student and family advocate in the education setting. Dr. Sanders has presented at international education conferences and is the founder of Safari Small Schools, an innovative micro school in Canton, Texas. Dr. Sanders created Safari Small Schools to meet the needs of learners who aren’t thriving in the traditional classroom. Dr. Sanders can be reached at DrSanders@safarismallschools.com.