School cafeteria

Public domain photo, courtesy of USDA

Bologna on white bread with bright yellow mustard was the centerpiece of my dream lunch.

Bean sprouts and cheese on multigrain with tahini was the reality.

My quest for acceptance in fourth-grade society was fraught with obstacles, and my parents’ flirtation with the health food movement of the late 1970s didn’t ease the pursuit.

Those seedy sandwiches never saw the fluorescent light of Woolrich Elementary’s cafeteria. The nutritious entrees that could have helped me memorize my times tables went straight into the trash can, but as far as my Oscar Mayer-eating friends were concerned, I was one of them.

By junior high, I was ready for school lunches. At the very least my food waste decisions would be universally accepted. Discarding overcooked canned green beans didn’t have to be a covert operation because everyone was doing it.

My introduction to school-made meals coincided with the big ketchup controversy of 1981. Congress cut the child nutrition budget that year, prompting USDA to consider classifying condiments like tomato ketchup and pickle relish as vegetables so school districts could meet reimbursement requirements.

But I was oblivious to the politics behind the food on my tray. I only cared if Tammy “liked me” or “like liked” me. In seventh grade, that extra “like” was comparable to getting a second maraschino cherry in your fruit cup at lunch. It was a big deal.

As it turned out, Tammy was more interested in my brother and I never really cared for the sugary syrup of fruit cocktail anyway, so that too ended up in the subsidized garbage bin.

A Reagan-era lunch ticket cost less than $2, and my parents — the same ones who tried to lure me away from Wonder Bread — were footing the bill. So no big deal, right?

Extrapolation of a 46-school study released last year by the World Wildlife Fund led to the alarming realization that public schools waste $1.7 billion worth of food annually. That’s about 530,000 tons of fruit cocktail, green beans and other cafeteria rejects.

The six-month study found that schools are wasting 39 pounds of food and 19 cartons of milk per student per year. Some of that food isn’t even touched or opened.

Last week, USDA published a scientific report that will be used to create the Dietary Guidelines for Americans for the next five years. “Guidelines” is a bit of a misnomer because these aren’t recommendations for how money is used to feed more than 30 million children through the National School Lunch Program. The “guidelines” are requirements that provide food and beverage companies access to a lucrative market, one that became more apparent to the general public when the coronavirus pandemic closed schools and restaurants and set off a ripple effect of disruption through the industry.

Lobbyists for these food and beverage companies spend millions of dollars for an advantageous position in the Dairy Guidelines. That’s money well spent when you consider what’s at stake. Many dairy farmers point to the removal of whole milk from schools — via the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which required schools to apply the Dietary Guidelines’ whole milk exclusion — as a major contributor to the industry’s ongoing struggles. So with another five years of guidance and an industry’s future on the line, it’s no surprise that the National Milk Producers Federation is concerned about how the advisory committee of doctors and nutritionists behind last week’s scientific report portrays saturated fat.

As the politics of nutrition guidelines play out, obscene levels of food waste will continue to be a byproduct of the school lunch program because schools are pressured to prioritize compliance in order to receive funding.

What’s the good of compliance if it ends up in a trash can?

Instead, why don’t we make the DGA exactly what its name suggests — a guideline not a mandate?

Trust school dietitians to customize nutritious meal plans that their students will actually eat, and the custodial staff won’t have to lug as many garbage bags full of rubbery beans and syrupy fruit to the dumpster.

You can’t force feed students, or the American public for that matter.

Stephen Seeber can be reached at