School Lunch Waste Among Middle School Students

Nutrients Consumed and Costs
  • Juliana F.W. Cohen
    Address correspondence to: Juliana F.W. Cohen, ScD, Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health, 677 Huntington Ave., Boston MA 02115
    Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts
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  • Scott Richardson
    Project Bread, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts
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  • S. Bryn Austin
    Department of Society, Human Development, and Health, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts

    Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine, Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts
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  • Christina D. Economos
    John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity, Nutrition and Obesity Prevention, Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University, Boston, Massachusetts
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  • Eric B. Rimm
    Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts

    Department of Epidemiology, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts

    Channing Laboratory, Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts
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      The National School Lunch Program has been guided by modest nutrient standards, and the palatability of meals, which drives consumption, receives inadequate attention. School food waste can have important nutritional and cost implications for policymakers, students, and their families.


      Nutrient losses and economic costs associated with school meal waste were examined. The study also assessed if school foods served were valid proxies for foods consumed by students.


      Plate waste measurements were collected from middle school students in Boston attending two Chef Initiative schools (n=1609) and two control schools (n=1440) during a 2-year pilot study (2007–2009) in which a professional chef trained cafeteria staff to make healthier school meals. The costs associated with food waste were calculated and the percentage of foods consumed was compared with a gold standard of 85% consumption. Analyses were conducted in 2010–2011.


      Overall, students consumed less than the required/recommended levels of nutrients. An estimated $432,349 of food (26.1% of the total food budget) was discarded by middle school students annually at lunch in these Boston middle schools. For most meal components, substantially less than 85% was consumed.


      There is substantial food waste among middle school students in Boston. Overall, students' nutrient consumption levels were below school meal standards, and foods served were not valid proxies for foods consumed. The costs associated with discarded foods are high; if translated nationally for school lunches, roughly $1,238,846,400 annually is wasted. Students might benefit if additional focus were given to the quality and palatability of school meals.
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