Skip to main content

Creative Solutions to Ending School Food Waste

Posted by Jimmy Nguyen, USDA Food Waste Challenge Team in Food and Nutrition
Aug 26, 2014
Our nation’s schools play an important role in reducing food waste. Click to enlarge.
Our nation’s schools play an important role in reducing food waste. Click to enlarge.

Americans waste enough food every day to fill a 90,000 seat football stadium. Approximately one-third of all food is wasted at the retail and consumer levels.  While research has shown that food wasted by children is similar to the rest of the U.S. population, there are many ways schools can reduce food waste and teach students about the impact it has on the environment and in their community.

At Chesterbrook Elementary School in McClean, VA, every student learns how to separate waste into categories like recyclables, food to be donated, upcycling bins, and general trash.  The school’s Eco Team, run by sixth graders, ensures their fellow students are putting waste into the correct bin. The team then collects, weighs, categorizes, and places the food to be donated into separate refrigerators, provided by the Food Bus, a non-profit organization that works with schools to donate food that would otherwise go to waste.

At the end of the week, PTA members or community volunteers deliver the food to the local food pantry.  In the 2013-2014 school year, the 12 schools that work with the Food Bus provided 13,502.6 pounds of food to their local food pantries.  These donations included packaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bananas and apples, yogurt, string cheese, containers of apple sauce and sliced peaches, granola bars, and cartons of milk.  The milk is especially welcome by food pantries since they lack other reliable sources for the product.

“I’ve taken countless cartons of milk to pantries over the past two years and mothers have taken the milk out of the bags before I have put them into the pantry refrigerator and opened them there on the spot and given them to their children.  Milk is expensive.” says Kathleen Weil, founder of the Food Bus.

Food waste and recovery is also incorporated into science lesson plans.  But there are other important takeaways as well according to Weil, “the children in the elementary schools are not only learning how to not throw away their food and add it to the national waste stream, but they’re learning that it can be used by someone who is hungry.  They are getting a little spark of community service now that may have an impact in their life and the lives of the many people around them when they are adults.”

Generally, six to eight months are needed to set up a food recovery program through Food Bus.  The process requires arranging for equipment needs, setting up a volunteer system and building a relationship with a local food pantry. It also involves a review of county rules and regulations on donations.

In the meantime, schools can curb plate waste with simple changes to school rules, especially in the cafeteria environment.  Studies have found that serving lunch after recess can reduce plate waste by as much as 30 percent.  In the cafeteria, tactics like naming vegetables (i.e. “creamy corn”) can increase its selection by 40 to 70 percent.  Another study, from the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, found that introducing a “healthy options only” convenience line increased consumption of those nutritious items by 35 percent.  You can find other simple tricks tested by the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement.

There are many ways to reduce, recycle, and recover food waste in school cafeterias.  By implementing these ideas, schools play a vital role in scaling back the amount of food taking up precious landfill space.  More importantly, if a school uses food waste as a learning opportunity, it instills better habits in our young people and produces more civic-minded, community-conscious adults.

As Anne Rosenbaum, Science Specialist at Haycock Elementary School in Virginia says, “there are some kids who really have an affinity for the food donation.  They want to go to the food pantry to see how it works.  Their parents call in to help volunteer because the kids are so interested.  We laugh because our Eco Team and Eco Patrols get blue rubber gloves so that if they find people who have thrown something in the wrong bin they can put it in the right one.  They take their jobs really seriously.”

When your school implements a food recovery program or makes simple changes to increase consumptions and reduce food waste, you can share your story by joining the U.S. Food Waste Challenge.

Editor’s Note: Updated on 4 Sept. 2014 - USDA’s official estimate of food loss at the retail and consumer level remains 31%, not 33% as cited in the original infographic  (Buzby et al. 2014, The Estimated Amount, Value, and Calories of Postharvest Food Losses at the Retail and Consumer Levels in the United States, Economic Information Bulletin No. 121, 39 pp, February 2014).

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition