From fresh apples to cartons of milk, schools throw out an enormous amount of food every day. Grist reports that the USDA’s National School Lunch Program wastes $5 million of food per day. Fortunately, there are many ways to stop food waste in schools, and you can help.
Shocking Food Waste Numbers
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) shares that 30 to 40 percent of all the food supply in the country is wasted. This amounts to a loss of 133 billion pounds of food with a cost of $161 billion. Meals that can feed families and children end up in the landfill every day.
In schools, it is easy to see the food waste problem during lunch. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) found that on average, students throw out 60 percent of their vegetables and 40 percent of their fruits at lunch. Considering that 32 million students eat lunch at school every day, this adds up to a large amount of produce that ends up in the trash.
Although the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act created new nutritional guidelines for school lunches, it has not eliminated the food waste issues. The New York Times reports that kids are still throwing out the healthier options and resent having to include them on their lunch trays.
Improve Food Quality and Taste
One of the biggest reasons for food waste in school is the quality and taste of the meals. Kids who hate the taste of plain asparagus or think their sandwiches are too dry will simply throw them away at the end of the lunch period. According to the New York Times, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act forces schools to serve more nutritious meals, but this also affects their flavor because they are required to offer only low-sodium and whole-grain options.
Although the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture has recently relaxed some of the strict rules of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, there is still room for improvement in serving both healthy and delicious food in schools. Some schools are trying to adjust by offering stir-fry stations and spice bars to bring back the flavor. Others are trying to serve less processed food and more locally grown options.
Join the EPA Food Recovery Challenge
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a Food Recovery Challenge that any organization, including educational institutions, can join. The challenge starts with a thorough assessment of the food waste and detailed inventory. Then, organizations can choose to prevent waste by reducing the source of the food, donating the extra food or recycling it. Changes can range from buying fewer items to reducing portion sizes or donating food to local shelters.
Educate and Involve Students
Action for Healthy Kids recommends educating students about food waste and helping them understand how much they throw away every day. Teaching kids to enjoy healthy options like apples or pears instead of throwing them away can also help.
Changing the actual lunchroom may be necessary. Action for Healthy Kids suggests coming up with creative names for healthy options, involving students in menu planning and encouraging student input about lunchroom décor. Other positive changes include providing a greater variety of fruit and vegetables, slicing or cutting produce to make it easier to eat and making the salad bar more visible and appealing.
The Herald-Dispatch reports that Cabell County Schools in West Virginia have started share tables to curb food waste at lunch. Students can return unopened, uneaten drinks and food to the share tables so that others can enjoy these items. After lunch, cafeteria workers remove what is left on the tables and decide if it can be used the next day.
Have Recess Before Lunch
Most schools force students to eat lunch before recess. However, the National Education Association (NEA) recommends switching this schedule around and having recess before lunch. The traditional schedule of eating and then running outside affects a child's health and behavior. Students are more likely to have stomach pain after rushing through their taco salad and jumping during recess immediately after the meal.
By playing outside first, students work up an appetite and are more likely to finish their lunch trays. The NEA points out that this helps reduce food waste and that it improves the number of healthy foods kids eat. Students are more likely to finish their fruit, milk and vegetables if they have recess before lunch.
Make Lunch Longer
Some students throw away their lunch because they do not have enough time to finish it. The Bridging the Gap Program reports that both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity suggest that children need at least 20 minutes to each lunch every day. However, most students receive significantly less time to eat as they wait in long lines or rush off to recess early.
The Bridging the Gap Program shares that students who have more time to eat are more likely to finish nutritious parts of their meals and were less likely to waste what was on their plates. Action for Healthy Kids recommends making changes to the length of the lunch period and the actual lunchroom, so everyone has enough time to eat. This includes increasing the number of service lines, offering quick service options, putting in milk vending machines or staggering lunches for grade levels.
How You Can Help
If you want to help stop food waste, you can start with your own lunch. First, only get as much food as you plan to eat. Avoid piling your tray with extra items that you will have to throw away at the end of lunch. Consider sharing extra food or exchanging it with other students for something else that you would prefer to eat.
Talk to your teacher or school counselor about food waste in your school and take action by volunteering to help stop it. Reach out to local organizations that pick up uneaten food or recycle it. You can make a difference by starting with your own school.
- USDA: Creative Solutions to Ending School Food Waste
- Action for Healthy Kids: Food Waste
- USDA: Does the U.S. Have a Food Loss and Waste Reduction Goal?
- EPA: Food Recovery Challenge (FRC)
- USDA: Food Loss and Waste
- Smarter Lunchrooms Movement: Nudging Kids to Eat Healthier
- Grist: Waste Not, Want Not: Schools Waste $5 million a Day in Uneaten Food
- The Cornell Daily Sun: One Dirty Plastic Bowl at a Time
- Herald-Dispatch: 'Share Tables' Help Stop Food Waste, Student Hunger
- New York Times: Why Students Hate School Lunches
- USDA: Ag Secretary Perdue Moves to Make School Meals Great Again
- National Education Association: Recess Before Lunch
- BTG: Most US Public Elementary Schools Provide Students Only Minimal Time to Eat Lunch
About the Author
Lana Bandoim is a freelance writer and editor. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and chemistry from Butler University. Her work has appeared on Forbes, Yahoo! News, Business Insider, Lifescript, Healthline and many other publications. She has been a judge for the Scholastic Writing Awards from the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. She has also been nominated for a Best Shortform Science Writing award by the Best Shortform Science Writing Project.