School Lunch Policy Has Florida School Leaders Considering Trash Cameras To Evaluate Effectiveness Of New Rules

10/02/2012 09:58 am ET | Updated Oct 02, 2012

In an effort to monitor the effects of the new federal lunch policy changes, Lake County school leaders in Florida have proposed using surveys or installing trash cams — cameras mounted on cafeteria garbage bins — to determine what portion of students’ lunches are destined for the dumpster.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, Lake County schools were the only ones in Central Florida last year to phase in the new rules a year before they were required. Officials estimated that students tossed $75,000 worth of produce in the garbage, prompting school board members to call for stricter trash monitoring to determine what specifically about the new policy is working, and what isn’t.

The new federal requirements, which represent the first major nutritional school meal overhaul in over a decade, offer less sodium and trans fats, more whole grains and a broader selection of fruits and vegetables to the 32 million students who take part in the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. The rules also place a calorie cap on lunches: 650 calories for elementary school lunches, 700 for middle schools and 850 for high schools.

Changes to the school lunch policy also demand more frequent food audits, which count calories and nutrients like protein and calcium. Those who pass will receive an extra six cents in addition to the $2.77 they receive for an average free lunch.

Districts that do not comply with regulations risk losing thousands of dollars annually in federal funding.

The trash-cam approach can prove costly, however, as the Sentinel reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture spent $2 million on a similar endeavor last year at five San Antonio elementary schools. Cameras photograph students' lunch trays before they sit down to eat and later take a snapshot of the leftovers. A computer program then analyzes the photos to identify every piece of food on the plate and calculates the number of calories each student consumed. The cameras, about the size of pocket flashlights, point only toward the trays and don't photograph the students.

Elsewhere in Florida, schools have turned to installing a school garden that supplies the cafeteria salad bar, or inviting chefs to cook appetizing recipes and elicit feedback from students.

According to the Sentinel, a 2002 congressional report found that uneaten lunchtime food nationwide costs taxpayers about $600 million or more a year. The paper reports that school districts in Texas and Massachusetts are in talks with researchers who will monitor lunchtime trash, though skepticism remains about whether this strategy will yield a solution to the problem.

New School Lunch Guidelines Effective Fall 2012

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