MARCANO: Free school food would be wasteful in more ways than one

Throwing money at a problem doesn’t fix issues. Never has, never will.

That’s why I’m not in favor of spending more money — another $200 million annually, according to advocates — to provide free breakfast and lunch to every student in Ohio schools.

I’m all for providing more nutritious meals to every school student who needs them. That’s a much different and far harder proposition because we can’t do that without getting a handle on food waste.

Hunger Free Schools Ohio does excellent work advocating that every student should have access to school meals. The group, comprised of education and hunger groups, wants universal free breakfast and lunches in all Ohio schools.

On one hand, that makes a lot of sense. Hungry children don’t do nearly as well in school because they find it harder to concentrate, tire easier, and lack motivation in class, according to several research studies. These students do so poorly that they risk being held back a grade.

Some students live with families so impoverished that school meals may be all they get all day. This one story will always stick with me. Years ago, a little girl got in trouble for trying to sneak her school lunch out of the building. She planned to take it to her little brother because it would be his one meal.

So I get people want food in the schools for all students.

It’s not the right solution.

America handles its free meals program like a duck handles a bowling ball, which is damn hard to do without fingers.

Schools in the United States waste more food than any other schools in the developed world, according to a study by Penn State University. As much as half of the food served to students gets dumped, the study noted.

That doesn’t include food that goes bad or items that get thrown out because schools know the students won’t eat them.

According to the environmental non-profit EarthShare, schools waste about 530,000 tons of food annually. That’s roughly the size of 132 full-grown African elephants (at four tons each).

That equals $9.7 million a day or $1.7 billion annually in waste, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Instead of simply saying let’s spend money to throw away more food, we need to address waste first.

That’s what the Food Waste Warriors project wants to accomplish. The program helps schools, including in Cincinnati and Columbus, examine strategies to ensure students eat what they take.

The project said that at three schools, students only had milk or water bottles as an option for a drink. They would so take a carton of milk, drink a little and throw it out, resulting in 49,500 wasted cartons per year. We’ve got to fix that.

Eliminating waste will require schools to offer different foods that students might actually eat and do a better job at monitoring the food quality, No one wants to eat a piece of fruit that isn’t ripe, a problem the Waste Warriors listed in its report.

And schools need to be willing to use programs like Share Table, where students can take certain uneaten food and share it with others who want another helping. It keeps students full and cuts down on waste.

Schools also need help. The USDA should relax guidelines that drive schools nuts. Schools comply with a dizzying array of rules, regulations, and needlessly complicated language like the “Notice of Vacatur: Recission of Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium Flexibilities.”

Schools know what’s best for their students and communities. Some person in Washington DC who spends time writing “vacatur” doesn’t.

So don’t spend more money. Cut down on waste. Relax regulations. Let the schools give food to those who need it. They know best.

Ray Marcano’s column appears on these pages each Sunday. He can be reached at