Alliance for Potato Research & Education
September 9, 2015 by Suzanne Farrell, MS, RD

Potatoes: A School’s Secret Weapon against Plate Waste

Food waste is a growing problem in school cafeterias across America that raises both nutrition and economic concerns. With the implementation of the new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) school nutrition standards—which include a mandate to increase fruit and vegetable offerings—many school foodservice authorities were worried that even more food would be wasted. However, a recent study published in Food and Nutrition Sciences suggests that pairing entrées with popular vegetables can actually be an effective strategy in reducing overall plate waste and increasing the nutrient intake of students.

The primary objective of the study was to examine the relationship between entrée and vegetable pairings and plate waste among elementary school students. Researchers from Texas A&M University collected plate waste data from three central Texas elementary schools participating in the National School Lunch Program. Plate waste collections were conducted both before and after the implementation of the new USDA school nutrition standards. The researchers found that the students wasted more than half of the vegetables they were served, and the amount of vegetables wasted during the post-implementation phase actually increased. But there was good news! The study demonstrated that pairing entrées with popular vegetables such as white potatoes—served as oven-baked French fried potatoes, tater tots, and potato wedges—resulted in the least amount of plate waste. What’s more, four out of five of the food pairings with the lowest overall plate waste included white potatoes.

What does this tell us? The white potato is one of the most popular vegetables served in school meals. Fortunately, the white potato is nutrient-rich and contains many of the same key nutrients found in the vegetables that more often ended up in the trash. Specifically, white potatoes are one of the highest sources of two shortfall nutrients—potassium and fiber—and are a good source of vitamin C and magnesium. In fact, a small serving of oven-baked French fried potatoes—the type served in more than 90% of schools—contributes 10% of the daily value for potassium and 8% of the daily value for fiber in just 116 calories and 3.6 g of fat.

Food isn’t nutritious unless it is consumed. That’s why gaining a better understanding of entrée and vegetable pairings is so important. When white potatoes in all forms are included on the menu, they can help to not only decrease food waste, but also increase nutrient intake among students. A true “win-win” for all!