Opinion: The high price of variety in schools

April 18 , 2017

By Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners president and founder Greg Christian

Meatloaf, tuna and noodles, BBQ ribs, chicken patty, tuna melt, turkey club, roast beef sandwich, teriyaki wrap, bacon lettuce wrap, fruit plate, vegetable plate, or salad bar? Kids face this monumental decision daily at school when choosing what to eat for lunch.

While kitchen staff attempt to prepare this variety of meal options with few employees and limited, if any, trained skills before the bell rings and hundreds of students descend upon the lunch line. All with an average of US$3 per lunch for food and overhead costs such as labor, energy, and supplies.

The variety and accompanying lack of quality offered students drives US$1.2 billion in wasted school lunch food annually. While it’s hard to measure the associated value proposition developed amongst the piles of garbage, we can see habits of mindlessness forming at an early age, and with it, a vision of normal when throwing away an entire uneaten sandwich along with the Styrofoam container it came in.

Instead of a few delicious meal choices, school kitchens and many food service establishments opt for an abundance of variety to address an overinflated perception that their customers prefer quantity above quality. Without the qualified staff in the kitchen, however, shortcuts become the way of doing business. Already chopped fruit, pre-shredded lettuce, and liquid eggs offer no match for the flavors of fresh produce and proteins. 

I visited a high school in Illinois that offered twenty entrées daily, plus all kinds of flavored soda, milks and candy bars. The food service decision makers create the illusion of choice, and we are happy.

The students feel a sense of freedom and control in picking salami on rye over chicken on white bread. The parents express a reassurance that their child can select the exact right meal to fill their needs any given day. But in reality, we have one choice – processed, tasteless food.

A better way to engage students and parents in the menu process involves taste testing and sampling. They feel the same sense of choice in knowing they have the power to decide what food is served in the cafeteria. With less selection, the cafeteria staff can focus on one to three meal choices that the students want to eat.  

If pressed, we’d choose one delicious meal that satiates us and gives us a pause of appreciation.

Eliminating variety allows the cooks the time to focus on making fabulous food. In serving food that students want to eat, participation increases. Higher sales, healthier kids, and happier parents, all the while reducing waste and taking better care of our planet’s resources. Now that’s worth chewing on.


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