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South Carolina Preschool Healthy Food Policy Did Not Increase Food Waste

New Research Offers Insights into Food Waste Patterns among Young Children in Preschool Settings

Nov 09, 2020


A policy that set nutrition standards for meals served at statewide subsidized child care centers in South Carolina was successful in increasing healthy food consumption without increasing overall waste, according to a new study from researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF), based within the department of Environmental Health and Engineering, and the Lerner Center for Health Promotion within the department of Health, Behavior, and Society at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The study is among the first to evaluate how nutrition standards may affect food waste patterns among children in childcare or early care and education (ECE) settings.

“Parents well know how easily many young children reject foods they don’t find appealing,” says lead author Roni Neff, director of CLF’s Food System Sustainability Program and an assistant professor with the Bloomberg School’s Department of Environmental Health and Engineering. “Studies with older kids have generally found that school food nutrition standards don’t lead to increased waste, and we wanted to know: would the same be true for preschoolers?”

To conduct their evaluation, the researchers observed children between the ages of three and five in ECE centers in South Carolina, which had a new nutrition policy for food served in ECE centers, and North Carolina, which did not. Trained observers recorded data on food served and discarded before and after the South Carolina nutrition standards went into effect. This allowed researchers to compare the change in South Carolina to the change in North Carolina during the same time period.

Overall, 102 children from 34 ECE centers in South Carolina and 99 children from 30 ECE centers in North Carolina were included in the study. Researchers first analyzed general patterns of waste in ECE facilities, separate from the nutrition standards. They found that vegetables, other than fries, were wasted the most, with 44% of vegetables as measured by volume discarded. The next most wasted food categories were “all beverages” (22%); fruit not including juice (22%), and milk (21%). Least wasted categories (those below 3%) included flavored milks, fries, sugar-sweetened beverages, and non-dairy milks. The high waste of vegetables represents a significant loss in nutrients, with 32% of vitamin A and 30% of vitamin C served at ECE centers getting thrown away.

After the South Carolina policy took effect, the state’s ECE centers served meals with higher servings of vegetable protein, fruits not including juice, and grains.

No marked difference in waste between South Carolina and North Carolina was observed for any category except milk. The policy resulted in increased servings of several foods, so although the percentage discarded was stable, the absolute amounts discarded increased for calories, protein, vegetables, grains, and sugar in South Carolina. Amounts served and discarded also increased in North Carolina during the same time period, despite the absence of an altered policy.

The researchers note that the high food discards observed represent significant economic losses that could have been used for needs such as feeding children higher quality foods and paying staff higher wages.

“A common misperception about healthy school food policies that is that they increase food waste. This study adds to the body of evidence that setting nutritional standards for school food does not necessarily increase the waste of food,” said Neff. “But how to actually prevent food waste by young children? There is still a great need for more research to enable establishing best practices for that.”

Preschool healthy food policy did not increase percent of food wasted: Evidence from the Carolinas” was written by Roni Neff, Daniel Zaltz, Amelie Hecht, Russell Pate, Brian Neelon, Jennifer R. O’Neill, and Sara E. Benjamin-Neelon and published in Nutrients.