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Food Waste in Schools and Strategies to Reduce It

Updated November 01, 2019
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Jennifer Folliard

SDSU Extension Family & Community Health Field Specialist

Written collaboratively by Jennifer Folliard, Mikalya Hardy and Francesca Benson.

USDA’s Let’s Talk Trash initiative has created an infographic that shows that about 90 billion pounds of edible food goes uneaten each year, which is about $372 per person. This means that daily, about 387 billion calories are going unconsumed, which is about one half pound per person per day. About 19% of this food waste comes from vegetables. According to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), 8% of all wasted food comes from institutional and foodservice settings. These settings would include places like hospitals and schools. These statistics show that food waste is a major problem and steps need to be taken reduce the amount of food waste produced on a daily basis.

You may be wondering what can schools do to help in these food waste reduction efforts? Schools can reduce, recover, and recycle the food that goes uneaten by students. They can reduce food waste through improved ordering, prepping, and storage techniques, they can recover wholesome uneaten food and donate it to feed people in need, and they can recycle discarded food for other uses including animal feed, compost, and energy generation.

Food Recovery Hierarchy

Diagram of the E.P.A. Food Recovery Hierarchy. An upside down pyramid divided into 6 sections ranked from most preferred to least preferred food recovery methods. From the top: Source Reduction, Feed Hungry People, Feed Animals, Industrial Uses, Composting, and Landfill/ Incineration.
Courtesy: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

One tool that can be utilized by schools when determining which steps to take is the Food Recovery Hierarchy. This upside-down pyramid goes through the steps that anyone can take in reducing food waste from the most preferred at the top or largest part of the pyramid to the least preferred methods at the bottom or smallest part of the pyramid.

The first step in the food recovery hierarchy is source reduction or controlling the amount of food wasted at the source by producing only the necessary amounts of food. The second step is feeding hungry people, such as donating food, or utilizing share tables in a school setting. The third step is to feed animals followed by the fourth step of industrial uses. The fifth step is composting the wasted food, and the final step is incineration or sending the food to the landfill. The final step is the least preferred method of disposing of food because it is resulting in that wasted food ending up in the landfill, which is the least desirable result. Food that ends up in landfills can produce methane gas which travels into the ecosystem and can have harmful effects.

Nutrition Program Strategy

In school nutrition programs there are a variety of steps in which food loss can be controlled ranging from planning the meals to serving the food. During the planning process menu planners can review items that students like or dislike and potentially remove the items that students do not like and replace them with new items for students to try. During the purchasing process, ensure that only enough food is being purchased and that over purchasing is not occurring. If there is a surplus of a food item in storage, do not order more of that item until it is needed. During the receiving process, ensure that food is kept at the appropriate temperatures so that it can be utilized rather than thrown out. During the storing process, food should be stored correctly to help keep it at its peak freshness and quality. Keeping a close eye on storage room, freezer, and cooler temperatures to ensure that they stay within the appropriate ranges is also very important to reduce food waste. During the production process, ensuring that food service staff are trained on knife skills to reduce food waste from fresh fruits and veggies.

Another production waste reduction strategy is ensuring that food service staff pay close attention to foods that are being cooked so that they do not burn or come prepared with a quality that students will not consume or will be more likely to throw away. Finally, during the serving process, schools can implement procedures such as offer versus serve so that students can take the items that they want, rather than being required to take all of the meal items.

Overall, utilizing active managerial control and paying close attention to food safety, monitoring, training of staff, and supervision of staff can help to reduce food waste in all of these areas. Also utilizing the feedback from the serving process all the way back to the planning process to benefit the planning process in the future is key.

Food Waste Audits

Schools can conduct a school food waste audit to determine how much food is wasted at their school or in their district. USDA, the EPA, and The University of Arkansas have developed a "Guide to Conducting a Student Food Waste Audit" resource for schools to utilize. This resource will walk schools through the step-by-step processes that should be taken to conduct an in depth food waste audit. Schools can also take more simple approaches as well and modify the food waste audit to fit their needs and ability. A Food waste audit is one of the best ways to learn which foods are going uneaten. It can help to determine how much food is being wasted and as mentioned, can be very simple or very complex. An example of a very basic food waste audit is the food service director standing by the trash can simply tallying how much of certain foods are being thrown in the trash – for example, fruits and vegetables.

Offer vs. Serve

There are a variety of ways that schools can help to reduce food waste. Schools can implement offer versus serve so that students have the ability to select or decline parts of their meal. When schools utilize offer versus serve they can reduce disposal costs, it may increase student fruit and vegetable consumption, and more meals can credit as reimbursable. When students are able to make choices about the food they are eating, they are less likely to throw food items away. USDA’s Team Nutrition Initiative has tons of resources available from posters to tip sheets for schools to hang up and utilize.

Salad Bars

Salad bars a great way to give students choice in their meals! When students are able to pick the food items that they will be eating, there is less waste created. Salad bars provide a larger variety of food items, which means more options for students and they will be more likely to actually eat the items that they are taking. Utilizing smaller pan sizes on a salad bar is another way to help decrease food waste and allows for more options to be placed on the salad bar as well. Also, the salad bar can be filled utilizing USDA Foods items to help cut back on cost. DOD Fresh/FFAVORS can provide fresh fruits and veggies for your salad bar and more variety at a little cost. Utilizing a salad bar can also help schools to cut back on plastics that they are utilizing. This is a win-win because funds that were previously spent on packaging can now be put towards food AND less overall waste from the plastic containers.

Share Tables

A young girl taking a banana from a tray of uneaten food.
Courtesy: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Share Tables are defined by USDA as tables or stations where children may return whole food or beverage items they choose not to eat, if it is in compliance with local and State health and food safety codes. These stations can be anywhere in the lunchroom as long as they are monitored by foodservice staff but they are typically found near the serving area. Share Tables allow children to take an additional helping of a food or beverage item from the table at no cost to them. Students put items that they do not want on the share table for other students to take. The food items placed on the share table must be items that are easily identifiable as not tampered with. Items in packaging, such as a milk carton or packaged carrots or whole fruits such as bananas, apples, oranges are examples of items typically utilized on share tables. Food and beverage items that are left on the share table may be served and claimed for reimbursement during another meal service such as the afterschool snack program or remainder of the lunch service. Items may also be donated to a non-profit organization such as a community food bank, homeless shelter, or other non-profit charitable organization. If food items are being placed on the share table that have food safety requirements, such as milk, all food safety procedures and temperature controls must be put into place as well. Some food safety tips for Share Tables are as follows:

  • Follow Federal, State, and local health and food safety requirements.
  • Establish clear guidelines for food components that may and may not be shared or reused as a part of a later reimbursable meal.
  • If sharing items that require cooling is permissible under local and State laws, establish strict food safety guidelines to prevent the risk of foodborne illness.
  • Supervise the share table at all times to ensure compliance with food safety requirements.
  • Promote the share table to children and families.

For more information about Share Tables, check out the USDA memo "SP 41-2016: The Use of Share Tables in Child Nutrition Programs."

Implementing Smarter Lunchroom Strategies

The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement was created to help nudge students towards more healthful food choices during lunchtime in schools. There are several evidence based strategies that schools can implement to help improve their lunchrooms and increase their students intake of healthful foods and in turn decrease food waste. There is a Smarter Lunchrooms Scorecard that schools can fill out to determine which strategies they are already doing and which ones they could implement. A few examples of smarter lunchroom strategies that reduce food waste are; cut up whole fruits and veggies, improve meal quality, and schedule recess before lunch. Cutting up whole fruits and veggies makes them easier for kids to eat and more appealing to eat as well. Also, training yourself and your staff on proper knife skills and cutting up fruits and veggies can reduce the amount of those fruits/veggies that you are wasting during the prep process. Offering sliced fruits and veggies can increase consumption by 70%! Improving meal quality is a pretty obvious suggestion. When meal quality is better, more students want to eat and they are more likely to eat what they are served.

Recess before lunch is also a huge factor in reducing food waste with students. When students are allowed to go to recess before they eat, they are less worried about going outside to play with their friends during lunch time and can focus more on eating. Also, there are studies that show that people have more of an appetite after some physical activity, which means increased consumption. Recess before lunch is considered a best practice and studies have shown that when recess is before lunch 40% less food is wasted and 54% more fruits and veggies are actually consumed. Recess before lunch can also lend itself to a more calm lunchroom environment.

Seat Time

A group of elementary school children sitting at a school lunch table.
Courtesy: U.S. Department of Agriculture

The amount of time that students are given to physically sit and eat is important for them. Studies show that students should have at least 20 minutes to actually sit and eat, not a 20-minute lunch period. Changing lunch periods from 20 to 25 minutes had a 13% decrease in waste, however, the best practice is actually a 30-minute lunch period. When students have longer to sit and eat they are consuming more of their food instead of feeling rushed. Meal times are traditionally a social time in our culture, so allowing students the time to eat and socialize is important. A seat time study was conducted at a school district at each school. The district has one high school, one middle school, and three elementary schools. The students at the middle and high schools choose when they get up to dispose of their trays so the amount of time that they are seated is more up to them than the elementary students. The students at the elementary schools are told when to get up and dispose of their trays regardless of if they are finished eating or not. On average students at the elementary schools had only 18 minutes to sit and eat, however, the younger grades typically had less time than that. It may be necessary to increase lunch times for younger students or at the beginning of the school year because it may take longer for students to go through the lunch line.

Involve Students

When students are involved in making their food choices, they are more likely to consume the food served to them. This can decrease food waste but also increase healthy foods that students are eating. There are many ways to involve students in your school meal programs and here are a few ideas:

  • Student taste testing.
  • Let students vote on new menu items to let you know if they liked it or not.
  • Have a contest for creative menu item names.
  • Generate excitement among students with cooking demos or classes.
  • Educate your customers (students) about menu items and meal requirements.
  • Form food recovery teams made up of students that help educate other students on which food items can be donated and which can be composted. These student teams can also help with donation and collection drop offs.

Donate Leftover Food Items

Yes! This is allowable! The SD Child and Adult Nutrition Services (CANS) Office has a Memo that specifically references the donation of leftover foods. CANS NSLP memo "#220-1 – Leftover Food Items" can help you to make an action plan for your leftovers. The main focus of the memo is to establish a policy to handle how or who should be in charge of disposing or donating leftovers.