Standing in the door of my school cafeteria was a nun, who, in the full garb of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, stood about seven feet tall. Like a giraffe leaning down to pick fruit off a tree, the same tall SBS nun would lower herself just in time to catch my passing ear and quickly say: “Eat everything you take, Daniel, or you will burn in hell for wasting the food God provides.” It was the only school lunch rule I can remember. And, while it sounds fairly religious, I am pretty sure the targets of my rocks at the public school across the street were also in the “clean plate” fraternity. People who survived the Depression and fought World War II were in charge back then, and food waste was a universal “sin.” Boy, how things have changed. In the name of “nutrition reform,” USDA’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP) has a policy in place that teaches more than 30 million school children in 100,000 schools on every school day by the example it sets that it is OK to waste food. In fact, it’s required. The reason is that USDA’s new nutrition rules demand that each little hand of a student getting a subsidized school lunch or breakfast must take the vegetable or fruit offering even if they plan to toss it in the garbage can. Many do, almost immediately. This government policy guaranteed to waste food is well into its second school year, and the phenomenon has hardly received any attention outside of the local newspapers where folks go to check the school menus for next week. The way the nutrition rules are contributing to food waste is only the most egregious example of how unintended consequences are warping a worthy policy goal to give kids more healthy food choices. High school kids in Kansas, where the old-fashioned concept of “chores” still exist, made enough fun of how they were getting hungry during the school day because of the “Hunger-Free Kids Act” that USDA backed off some of its one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition reform and took limits off meat and grain portion sizes. Finally, however, some evidence has turned up for those who think things are not right in the local school cafeteria, and it’s time to open this issue to some badly needed counter-reform. And no one needs to get into a hissy fit about Congress making some changes. Parents and others who question what is going on with nutrition reform agree that kids should get healthy choices. The problem is USDA’s failure to implement – the federal government’s problem of our time. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is out with a report on the NSLP shrinkage, which is another unintended consequence of this reform. The losses add up to a staggering 1.6 million kids from families who could pay for their own school lunches. They’ve dropped out entirely over school lunch prices or menu changes, or both. Chances are the lunches they are purchasing at the mall or the drive-in are not all that healthy. Just as the federal government’s ill-fated healthcare reform kicked off with mandates that forced cancellation of millions of existing health insurance policies, the NSLP changes did make up some of the losses from its cash-paying customers by handling out more free lunches to needy students. But GAO found the addition of about 400,000 new free lunch takers still left the program down by about 1.2 million. Previously, there had been some reports that 500 to 600 schools had dropped out of the NSLP. With 100,000 schools and a couple hundred probably always coming or going, the school-loss issue could be played down. USDA’s problem now is the NSLP is getting smaller in half of the country’s schools. The Washington Post said the GAO report “paints a dismal picture,” and that is probably an understatement. Unlike some audits by GAO, this report is very careful with its language. It speaks of “challenges,” where “failures” might be a more appropriate word. It says there is a need for “clarification of oversight,” where it might have just spelled out how USDA might get its act together. Language aside, the GAO report provides evidence that food waste is massive and state and local food authorities find it troubling. In GAO speak, they call it “plate waste” and blame its significant increase during the 2012-2013 school year squarely on the new lunch requirements. Even a Harvard study that claimed new standards were not responsible for increasing waste in four Boston schools (again, there are 100,000 schools in the NSLP) found overwhelming food waste. It said the “consistently high levels of fruit and vegetable waste are concerning.” The Harvard study said food waste at the four Boston schools included 60-75 percent of all vegetables and 40 percent of all fruit served. The researchers said that was typical for urban, low-income schools with a diverse enrollment. No mention in the GAO report of this, but the nutrition reform must be turning many a lunch lady to drink. They’ve had to raise lunch prices, buy more pricey fresh fruits and vegetables, and then figure out what to do with tons of food waste as garbage bills consume their budget surpluses. They have to look for state and local government funds to get into the compost business. And it goes round and round as they try and work through costly problems created by USDA dictates. But every issue impacts another. When students are leaving campus in droves, there’s nothing the lunch lady can do but chase after them. In Colorado, the Boulder Valley School District has accepted a donation from Whole Foods to buy a $75,000 food truck for the lunch program. It will work the area between the schools and the parking lots with the district’s healthy food options. Boulder Valley’s food truck is but one of dozens of examples of local school districts trying to catch all the spills created as this mishmash has played out. State and local school food service managers have brought their fixes forward through the School Nutrition Association (SNA), and changes will be made by Congress in 2015 when federal child nutrition programs are up for re-authorization. At a minimum, Congress needs to make sure we are not teaching kids that food waste is OK. We need to go back to that old lunch line rule of taking only what you plan to eat. This summer, parents should ask candidates for Congress if they’ve sat down yet in the district’s empty lunchroom for a talk with their local school food service personnel about their experience working with the new USDA standards during the past two academic years. If those conversations occur, Congress will do the right thing. The SNA recommendations are a good place to start.