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K-12 schools have a special role in not only reducing, recovering, and recycling food waste on their premises but also in educating the next generation about the importance of food conservation and recovering wholesome excess food for donation to those less fortunate.

Most importantly, increasing consumption and reducing wasted food means children get the nutritional benefits from the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP).

The best way to tackle food waste is to make sure students consume what they take. This involves good planning by school nutrition staff, getting students involved in decision-making, and having teachers educate students on the impacts of wasted food.


  • Offer-versus-serve (OVS) – Allows students to decline some components of a reimbursable meal as a way of providing choice and reducing waste. OVS is mandatory in high schools, but optional for elementary and middle schools (81 percent of all elementary and middle schools used OVS at lunch).
  • Market your meals – Highlight new foods on your menus and serving lines. Consider holding taste tests and recipe competitions or creating a student advisory committee to provide feedback on food acceptability and recipe names.
  • Extend lunch from 20 to 30 minutes – In a poll by NPR and the Harvard School of Public Health (PDF, 1 MB), 20 percent of parents of students from kindergarten through fifth grade surveyed said their child only gets 15 minutes or less to eat. Extending the lunch period can improve dietary intake and reduce food waste.
  • Create share tables – Share tables are designated stations where children may return whole and/or unopened food or beverage items they choose not to eat. These items are then made available to other children who may want another serving during or after the meal service. USDA encourages the use of share tables and offers implementation guidance.
  • Saving food items – Students who may not have time to finish their meal during the designated lunch period may save certain meal components for later in the day. For food safety reasons, this practice should be limited to food items that do not require cooling or heating.


  • Guide to Conducting Student Food Waste Audits (PDF, 2.7 MB) – This food waste audit guide provides students with step-by-step guidance on collecting data on how much food and which types of food is thrown away by students in their school cafeterias. The guide is intended to help educate students about the amount of food they waste in their school cafeterias and to educate them about ways to encourage healthy eating and reduced waste.
  • Reducing Food Waste: What Schools Can Do Today (PDF, 858 KB) – Hang this infographic up in your school or use it as an educational tool in the classroom.
  • Team Nutrition: What You Can Do to Help Prevent Wasted Food (PDF, 1.4 MB) – Provides tips for school nutrition professionals, teachers, and students.
  • Summary of Food Waste Resources and Tools for Nutrition Programs - The USDA Food and Nutrition Service’s Office of Food Safety has compiled a selection of reports, articles, and tools that school nutrition professionals can utilize to understand the issue of food waste and assist them in implementing strategies to reduce wasted food.

Donations and Liability Protection

Schools that wish to donate food have protections under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. The Act grants liability protections for “persons and gleaners” who make good faith donations to nonprofits for ultimate distribution to needy individuals at zero cost or at a good Samaritan reduced price. Here, the term “person” includes schools and institutions of higher education if they identify as anindividual, corporation, partnership, organization, association, or governmental entity, including a retail grocer, wholesaler, hotel, motel, manufacturer, restaurant, caterer, farmer, and nonprofit food distributor or hospital”. 

New amendments passed on January 5, 2023, also grant liability protections to “qualified direct donors” who donate directly to needy individuals at zero cost.  Qualified direct donors include: school food authorities, intuitions of higher education, caterers, restaurants, and more.  

The information presented is not a guidance document and does not constitute legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship.

Contact Us:
Dr. Jean Buzby
USDA Food Loss and Waste Liaison