Teaching kids to throw away food

School meals have become a $3 billion industry in this country, funded by federal tax moneys funneled through the Department of Agriculture. That industry has more than doubled since 2000, when Washington reimbursed local schools $1.39 billion.

And not only are there no safeguards against waste, waste is encouraged.

As at a casino buffet, the federal program doesn't allow food to be saved or taken home, even though Clark County Food Services individually packages up everything from apple slices to cinnamon rolls.

And for the district to be reimbursed, the low-income students must take all the proffered food and drink items, even if they already ate breakfast at home and just want a juice box.

The district assigns a worker to each cafeteria to make sure every child in the breakfast line takes every item. Students who take just milk or a juice box are told to go back and get the rest. And the school can't take back unopened items.

"It's called a full-meal reimbursement," explains Charles Anderson, director of Food Services, who blames the federal rules for what happens next.

It should come as no surprise where a lot of that still-wrapped food ends up: in the garbage.

At Craig Elementary School, as reported by the Review-Journal's Trevon Milliard on Feb. 3, the school's physical education teacher actually quantified the waste by assigning each class of fifth-graders to tally what they didn't eat. The three classes reported a total of 700 breakfast items unopened and thrown away by students over three weeks. And that's just one grade of 125 students, at one of the district's 312 "severe need" schools.

Activists have plans to make the waste even worse. Clark County is one of the nation's top five school districts in terms of lost meal-reimbursement dollars, according to the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit organization working "to eradicate hunger in the United States." That's because less than half of the district's 131,000 low-income students who eat lunch also take a free school breakfast.

The district received $71.9 million in federal reimbursements for low-income breakfast and lunches in 2010-11, and it is looking for $85.5 million this year. But if just 33,000 more students were to take breakfast, Clark County would receive $8.7 million more, the center urges.

No matter how many kids throw their food away.

No one wants children to go hungry. If there's a way for actual hungry kids to get some nutritious food so they're not distracted from their studies by a rumbling tummy, that's great.

But in an era when Washington's spending is already out of control - taxes going up, inflation looming, Congress still borrowing 40 cents of every dollar it spends - this is nuts. Isn't frugality - not lack of generosity, but the idea that resources are limited and that waste is bad - one of the things we want our children taught?

Instead, a one-size-fits-all plan, built on the model of Soviet collectivism, starts to look like a monster running amok.

At Craig Elementary, where 96 percent of the school's 800 students are low-income, only one-fifth of the children came early for breakfast when it was served 10 minutes before school, Principal Kelly O'Rourke reports. The most common reason low-income children don't eat school breakfast? They're being fed at home, Ms. O'Rourke says, referencing a UNLV report commissioned by the district.

Superintendent Dwight Jones decided last year to require 36 elementary schools with high poverty rates to make breakfast part of the school day - a program called Breakfast after the Bell - by having students go to the cafeteria before reporting to class. The program expanded to 76 schools a year ago.

"I don't think any more kids are actually eating school breakfast now," even though many of the school's children are in the program, she says.

Instead Ms. O'Rourke sees "piles and piles of food getting thrown away" as she walks by a cafeteria garbage can crammed with unopened milk cartons, fruit cups and cinnamon rolls.

This is still a wealthy country, thanks to our free market system. No child need go hungry. But such a massive misallocation of resources, such willful waste when there are food banks that struggle to come up with enough wholesome food for the homeless and poor, verges on the obscene.

If these rules come from Washington, then Congress has the power to instruct the Department of Agriculture - or whoever - to rewrite them in order to eliminate the perverse incentives that now teach children to throw good food in the trash. Get it done.