An estimated $4 million a day is being wasted
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CINCINNATI -- An exclusive 9 On Your Side investigation reveals millions of dollars worth of fresh fruits and vegetables are being thrown in the trash in school lunch rooms in Ohio and across the country.
The National School Nutrition Association blames new federal nutrition standards requiring students to take more fresh fruits and vegetables as well as increasing the amount of whole grains.
The National School Lunch Program feeds 31 million students across the country, including one million in Ohio.
FACT SHEET: National School Lunch Program
It's operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and spends nearly $12 billion a year and insists more students are eating fresh fruits and vegetables and the program is aimed at making students healthier.
The USDA points to a recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health to support its claim, but the same study also shows that 60 percent of fresh vegetables and 40 percent of fresh fruit are being thrown away.
And a recent study released by the National School Nutrition Association found 81.2 percent of schools surveyed indicated an increase in the amount of food being thrown away by students since the new nutrition standards went into effect two years ago.
The association also points to a study performed by researches at Cornell University and Brigham Young University that suggests some $4 million a day is being wasted.
At the same time, schools are being required to serve even more at increased costs to schools.
Jeni Lange is a school nutritionist and a member of the Ohio School Nutrition Association who said "the concept is just wonderful — but in fact, if a student is only going to take it and then discard it — it's going to be a waste."
Our report found the new standards are so unpopular that nearly 600 school districts across the country have dropped out of the school lunch program, citing more and more students simply not buying lunches.
"We are seeing a trend where meal counts are going down just because students aren't accepting all the changes that are taking place," said Lange.
"There are fewer students eating."
The National School Nutrition Association estimates one million few students are eating school lunches since the standards went into effect.
In the Douglas County School District in Colorado, School Board President Kevin Larsen says "we don't want to have the most nutritious waste basket in the state or the country" and opted out of the program.
Fort Thomas Independent Schools, in Northern Kentucky, has also dropped out of the program.
"I have to think that across the country, it has to be a staggering amount of food going to waste and I think there are people out there who could really use that food," said Fort Thomas School Superintendent Gene Kirchner.
Kirchner said the menu in Fort Thomas has been replaced with nutritious food that taste better is more appealing to students.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Unified School District in California estimates it is losing a whopping $100,000 a day in wasted food.
In Ohio, one school district has come up with plan to provide food that would have been headed to the trash but instead is providing food for the homeless.
A volunteer parent in Medina started "Operation Lunch" two years ago and has "saved" 35,000 items that were donated to a local community center—including 1,314 fruit cups and 841 oranges and tangerines.
"Students donate nutritious food to those need it so it won't go in the trash," says "Operation Lunch" founder Marcie Henning.
The new standards are forcing some schools to come up with new ways to make school lunches taste better.
Canton Local Schools in northern Ohio, for example, have hired a former chef to stop the food waste.
Amy Merda is Canton Local Schools Food Service Director and says her goal is to 'serve food in a healthful way" that students will eat.
And students seem to agree.
"They have great food and very healthy lunches," said one.
"Everything here is good," another student said.
Even so, Merda admits she is "not seeing an increase in taking of the required fruits and vegetables most of the time."
CLICK TO DOWNLOAD: Ohio Department of Education: Meal Pattern for School Lunch and Breakfast