A new way to stop food waste?

Food waste has been in the news quite a bit recently. As I've previously mentioned, it is unlikely economically optimal to completely eliminate food waste.  That said, one thing that most folks can probably agree on is that we do not want to enact government policies that encourage more food waste.  

Yet, according to a couple recent papers by Cornell economists, the school lunch program is doing just that.  

The first study, in the journal Public Health Nutrition, the authors (Just and Price) used in-school experiments and found that requiring schools to place additional servings of fruits and vegetables on kids' plates in a school lunch line (as is required by new standards), causes a small increase in fruit and vegetable consumption but also a huge increase in waste.   The authors report (from one of their two studies) that:

However, as more items were served the fraction of items being thrown away more than doubled for those students taking just one serving (from 39 % up to 82 %) and also increased for those students taking two or more servings (from 45 % up to 60 %).

Some of the media discussion surrounding the article suggests that:

For every one to two children who eat fruits or vegetables under the new federal guidelines, five throw them away, the researchers said.

Which results in $3.8 million being thrown away each year.  The authors other research suggest that it may make more economic sense to provide financial incentives for kids to eat fruits and veggies rather than simply requiring more be placed on a tray. 

In another study by David Just (this time with co-authors Andrew Hanks and Brian Wansink) appearing in PLoS ONE, looked at the effects of another school lunch policy: banning chocolate milk.  Again, the authors compared treatment and control schools that had different policies (or before and after policy changes) and found the following:

Removing chocolate milk from school cafeterias may reduce calorie and sugar consumption, but it may also lead students to take less milk overall, drink less (waste more) of the white milk they do take, and no longer purchase school lunch. 

Although more students took white milk after the chocolate milk ban, they wasted about 29% more than before the ban.   

David Just and his colleagues at Cornell have been studying all kinds of ways to increase fruit and vegetable consumption among school children by doing things link re-orienting lunch lines, placing kid-friendly stickers on fruits and veggies, providing economic incentives, changing payment methods, etc.  I like this experimental approach to seeing what works - particularly when paired with research on cost-effectiveness.  But, as their research shows, simply banning foods or mandating that schools plate more fruits and veggies is largely ineffective and wasteful.