Posted by Patrick Maness
If you’ve ever gone through the line in a school cafeteria, you probably remember the industrial-sized waste bins filled with greens, half-eaten sandwiches and cold soup. And if you’ve ever walked through the back door and caught a whiff of the decomposing food coming from the overflowing dumpsters, it probably struck you that an awful amount of food gets thrown away.
Some people think food waste is inevitable in any large cafeteria setting. With so many mouths to feed and such a tight budget to work with, it’s more efficient and cost effective to order in bulk and serve food in set quantities rather than attempt to cater to a bunch of picky eaters.
But the numbers associated with food waste are staggering. In Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district, it's conservatively estimated that students throw out $18 million in food each year. One study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine concluded that $1,238,846,400 worth of food was wasted each year in the nation’s schools.
Clearly, this situation can be improved.
Solutions for food waste in schools
The Department of Agriculture has begun a voluntary program called the U.S. Food Waste Challenge. Schools that participate in the challenge are asked to consider making certain changes to reduce their food waste, some of which include:
Set up a sharing table where students can put items they don’t want to consume.
Give kids more time to eat.
Donate unused food (especially unopened, prepackaged food) to food shelves or local charities.
Consider some of the ideas found on the Smarter Lunch Score Card to both reduce waste and encourage students to eat healthier.
From a planning stance, schools are reminded to consider the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle. Administrators and cafeteria directors should make decisions based on whether they can reduce the amount of current waste, reuse packaging and other containers, and recycle any material used.
Composting at school
In addition to strengthening their recycling programs, many schools have begun to compost their food waste.
Oftentimes these composting efforts are tied to other programs and activities. For instance, schools involved with the Farm to School program we wrote about in the previous blog may use the compost for fertilizer in their gardens. Or, schools may partner with local farmers who need the compost to maintain the health of their soil.
Ultimately, these efforts to reduce food waste are not just a matter of responsibility or stewardship. They have economic advantages as well. Seattle Public Schools, which has been an early adopter of a number of composting and recycling programs in their schools, estimates these efforts could save the district over $100,000 a year.
Such numbers alone should be motivation to begin to cut back on food waste in your school.
Read other articles in this series: