WASHINGTON — A food waste study confirmed what cafeteria workers at Beverly Manor Junior High School already knew — a lot of food was being thrown away.

Kaitlyn Streitmatter, a SNAP Education Educator from the University of Illinois Extension came to the school one day in October 2019 carrying a bunch of buckets and a scale. That day students didn’t throw their food away. Instead they handed their plates to Streitmatter and four other SNAP educators recruited for the task. Leftover pizza was put in one bucket, green beans in another, and pineapple in a third. Chocolate milk and white milk also got weighed individually. The SNAP educators were extremely scientific about the task — they even know how many servings of each menu item were left uneaten.

“We weighed the different components on the menu ahead of time,” said Streitmatter.

At the end of lunch, SNAP educators determined that 27 percent of the food served that day ended up as waste, a total of almost 108 pounds.

“And that was a popular meal,” she said. “Pizza, green beans, pineapple — most kids like those items.”

The study provided Joan Wood, food services director for District 50, with a strong reason to switch to the “offer vs. serve” method of food distribution.

“Before, whatever my menu was, every student would get every item on the menu. So if I put fresh broccoli on the menu — there’s a good deal of kids who don’t like fresh broccoli — it went straight into the garbage can,” said Wood. “With offer vs. serve they can choose what’s on their tray, within reason, because there are certain components that have to be on their tray, like a fruit or vegetable. But this gives them the opportunity to choose what they want to eat.”

Waste reduction is not the only reason to let children choose.

“Research has shown that if the students choose what they want to eat, they are more likely to eat it, and that’s even at a pre-K level,” said Streitmatter. A nutritious meal cannot benefit a child unless it’s consumed.

Switching to offer vs. serve was not difficult. The school did it in stages, starting with the oldest kids. Students were told about the new system beforehand, and everything went smoothly. Once the whole school was on the new system, Streitmatter came back and did a final plate waste study. The amount of waste was halved — 53 pounds, or 12.7 percent of the food served that day to 400 students in grades four through eight.

The program was so successful it was implemented district wide — J.L. Hensey Elementary School adopted it when school began late last summer.

Wood said it's too soon to tell if offer vs. serve will save the district money, but she does think it will change the way she orders. One thing is for sure, they are buying less broccoli. And there is a surplus of canned goods since the kids seem to prefer fresh fruits. Any savings could allow Wood to experiement with new products.

“Maybe in the next couple years we’ll be able to try new things,” said Wood. “Before it was like ‘well that’s way too expensive to try,’ but now we got a little bit of wiggle room and we can try it and see how it goes over. And if they like it, we can try to get a bid and get a cheaper price so we can have it more often.”

Last year they served fresh cantaloupe and watermelon for the first time, providing a few children the opportunity to taste something new, said Wood.

“We had some kids that had never had cantaloupe, which blew my mind.”

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.