Customers Drive School Meal Choices at Cloverleaf

Students are our customers.

This simple phrase sums up how the Cloverleaf nutrition staff approaches their work. The team works hard to offer appealing menu items, as well as engage their customers in decision-making and tasting processes.

During the 2015-16 year, the nutrition team was very busy. They updated the salad bar, offered monthly taste testings, implemented Tot Chef cooking classes, and added cold-water dispensers into the cafeteria. New signage was also added to help students navigate through the meal choices.


Ten students and their parents participated in the six-week Tot Chef program.

Location, Location, Location

In smarter lunchrooms, healthful items are offered in strategic locations. First in line and in a busy traffic pattern are two prime spots. To take advantage of the location, Food Service Director Carrie Beegle moved the salad bar, from a sidewall position, into the center of the high school cafeteria. In the new location, students must pass the salad bar to get to the cashier.

  • The results were positive; fruit and vegetable selection increased by 300%.

Entrée items were also reordered in the line. Beegle moved the homemade entrée of the day, called Kitchen Sync, to the first position in the serving line. Students now select the healthiest entrée twice as often as the pizza. This was an easy change with huge results!

Gotcha Sriracha at the Middle School

The middle school Student Food Service Committee participated in cooking lessons and created their own spice blends. Students created spice blends named Gotcha Sriracha, Kickin’ Colt and Jamaican Me Crazy.

“Herb blends were a big hit with all our students,” raved Beegle. “Students use them with everyday items to add instant flare and the salt requests have disappeared.”

Salad Bar Changes Reduce Waste

Elementary school students helped update their salad choices. A tray waste study revealed that 62% of the pre-made salads were wasted. The Cloverleaf Elementary staff added a salad bar to encourage students to select their own side item.

  • After the new salad bar was created, only 6% of the salad bar choices were discarded.

Staff handed out stickers to the elementary students when they had finished all their fruits and vegetables. The students were excited to receive the sticker.

Taste It Tuesdays and More

Like most taste events, Taste It Tuesday featured bite-size pieces of fruit and vegetable-based items, and students gave feedback on the taste. Taste It Tuesdays in Cloverleaf, though, featured a few very unique items:

Joyce’s Banana Freezes were a hit – 1,250 samples were gobbled-up by the students. The sampling, created by Cloverleaf’s head chef Joyce Meyer, was also featured in the Medina County Gazette.  Click here for the recipe.


Vegetable waste decreased when elementary students served themselves.

10 Trays and You’re an Expert!

A plate waste study is an inexpensive way to identify which fruits and veggies kids are eating. Plate waste collection is easier than you might expect. In Ohio, we say, “it only takes 10 trays and you’re an expert.” It’s that easy!USDA Infographic

Conducting plate waste studies at your school can help identify student preferences, aid in menu planning and ultimately reduce the amount of food waste. Plate waste studies can also help track trends like these:

  • % of fruits consumed
  • % of vegetables consumed
  • % of entrées consumed

Quarter-Waste Method

The Quarter-Waste Method was created by The Cornell Food and Brand Lab. Observers estimate whether all, 3/4, 1/2, or 1/4 of food was wasted. This coding process is reliable and comparable to weighted waste measurement (Hanks, Wansink, & Just, 2014).

Three Phases of a Successful Study

When you are ready to conduct your plate waste study, there are three phases to consider:

  1. Preparation
  • Schedule. Plan to be at the same school 2 to 3 days before and after the Smarter Lunchrooms intervention. Take a look at the school menu to find days when food items of interest are offered. Return on similar menu days for more accurate results!
  • Paperwork. Save yourself time by using the school menu to fill in food items that will be served. Leave blank rows for any last minute menu additions. We strongly encourage the use of Excel for data input.
  • Cafeteria Layout. Go into plate waste days with a plan! Think about where you want to set up the tray return area and estimate how many observers you will need for collection.
  1. Collection
  • Arrive Early. This will give you time to set up the tray collection area. Record standard serving sizes and observe what is being pre-plated for student lunches.
  • Code Food Items. Enter code data for food items that you can identify – look for food clues (crumbs) or wrappers and packaging. For specific coding entry information, download the plate waste protocol under the Evaluation Tools – Plate Waste tab above.

Below is an example of a tray you may see during your session. Can you code these items?

PW TrayIn this photo you can clearly identify baked beans and pineapple. The entrée is pizza, which can be identified from the plate it was offered on. The coding for this tray is:

  • Pizza = 0 (all of it is eaten)
  • Baked Beans = 0 (all of it is eaten)
  • Pineapple = 4 (all of it is wasted)
  • Milk = Unidentifiable through photography

To code the milk container, you can pull back the opening and visually see how much is left, or simply pick up the container and estimate by weight.

  • Clean Up. Make sure to clean up the collection area. Return the garbage cans and any items you may have borrowed. Thank the staff for their cooperation and help!
  1. Summary

Once you have your data, combine it to create a simple frequency table. A frequency table summarizes the percentage of each food item wasted and consumed. We have provided a downloadable waste summary template under the Evaluation Tools – Plate Waste tab above. Simply plug in your session numbers and see your results! If you are interested in a detailed waste report analysis, contact us. We’d love to help!

Share your reports with your school staff and school wellness committee members. Use the results to brainstorm solutions for menu planning and food waste reduction.

For additional resources, check out the videos provided by Cornell Smarter Lunchrooms on Organizing a Tray Waste Study Team and Tray Waste Practice. For more Smarter Lunchrooms plate waste resources, click on the Plate Waste page under the Evaluation Tools tab above.

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