Why K-12 is stuffing lunch waste

Food insecurity and new laws spur schools to recycle, conserve and redistribute meals
By: | January 17, 2018

Every year, nearly 40 percent of food produced in America is thrown into the trash. That trend extends to the 5 billion lunches served in U.S. public schools each year, amounting to an estimated $1.2 billion of annual lunchroom waste, according to USDA data and findings from a two-year study of Boston middle schools.

The varied reasons underlying school food waste can be hotly debated. However, many schools are devising successful strategies and programs to redistribute, recycle and conserve cafeteria food and other, non-organic waste.

School to farms

“We have become a convenience-based society” says Karyl Kent, director of nutrition services for Lamoille North Supervisory Union and School District in Vermont. “It is easier to dump everything into one receptacle and move on, thinking, ‘It’s just one fork,’ or ‘just this one time,’ which can happen over and over.”

Lamoille North, whose 450 employees serve about 1,800 students, has been composting lunch waste for five years with help from a local compost company. The program has kept more than 35,000 pounds of food scraps from landfills and reduced the amount of edible food that is discarded, according to local reporting.

Additionally, Lamoille North high school students, with help from a sustainable agriculture program, collect and take kitchen food scraps to a local farm to feed laying hens.

“To complete the circle, students learn to cook what they produce and sell farm products back to the school kitchen” Kent says.

To further engage older students, Kent advocates peer guidance and student-led sustainability and environmental clubs. To involve the youngest students in recycling and composting, Lamoille North uses hands-on activities such as gardening with compost materials.

“Starting composting programs in elementary schools is probably the most exciting and effective way to teach students about food systems and the (potential) value of food waste” Kent says. “Younger students get very excited about where trash, recycling and food waste go and are eager to participate.”

Café to community

Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia, which enrolls nearly 80,000 students in one of the most affluent counties in the U.S., also relies on students to reduce waste. Through “food recovery” programs, students donate unwanted, nonperishable and unopened lunch items, which are later distributed to local food pantries.

The programs were implemented in 2014 amid estimates that almost 10 percent of Loudoun County children lived in food-insecure households where financial problems forced families to make trade-offs between basic needs and more nutritious food.

In 2016-17, nine participating schools recovered five tons of food, says Charlene Stoker Jones, executive director of the Dulles South Food Pantry in Loudoun County. The pantry also operates a program that sends a bag of groceries home with students in need each Friday.

“Last year, almost every one of the 4,337 food packs contained snacks, juice boxes, dried fruit and fruit, or cereal cups that came to the pantry through food recovery” Jones says.

A similar program has launched at Top of the World Elementary School in Laguna Beach USD in Southern California.

“We found room for a repurposed refrigerator and started collecting unopened food, beverages and whole, unconsumed fruits and vegetables” says Anakaren Ureno, Laguna Beach USD’s public communications liaison.

A law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2017 allows California schools to collect and donate unopened items and untouched fruit. Under previous state law, schools were prohibited from donating items other than milk and food that had not been served. Schools also had to have someone supervise share tables where students placed unopened, unwanted food for use by others.

At Top of the World, the recovered food provides snacks for the district’s after-school program and the remainder goes to a local food pantry.

Since the program’s September 2017 launch, the average recovery has been 13 pounds of food and beverages per week, with a few weeks peaking at 25 pounds, Ureno says.

Healthy and ‘smarter’

For many schools, reducing lunchroom waste does not end with recovery, redistribution and recycling. In recent years, some schools have embraced the Smarter Lunchrooms movement.

Championed by a nonprofit organization with the same name, and by the USDA through its HealthierUS School Challenge grants, “smarter lunchrooms” use research-based, low-to-no cost strategies to entice students to try new foods and eat what they put on their trays.

“Through one high school, we found out that the students would not eat in the lunchroom due to the no-cell phone policy” says Katie Bark, project director of Montana Team Nutrition.

In 2014-15, Bark and fellow Team Nutrition members worked with five Montana high schools to implement Smarter Lunchroom strategies. Cafeterias throw out less when the food produced is eaten by students, even off-campus.

“With open-campus policies, it can be difficult to entice students to eat lunch in the cafeteria” Bark says. “A food service director came up with the solution of offering a balanced, grab-and-go combo meal in the hallway so the students could access it before they left the building during lunchtime.”

Montana Team Nutrition also reduced waste by encouraging schools to adhere to USDA rules that allow students to refuse two of five food groups, by instituting a share table for unopened items and by letting students take part of their lunch from the cafeteria to eat later. Other effective strategies included slicing or quartering whole fruit into smaller pieces that younger students would be more likely to eat.

Signs also encourage students to take only what they will consume.

Finally, because hungrier students eat more, K8 schools also are encourages to send children out to recess before lunch.

Raising community awareness

Whatever the lunchroom strategy, student involvement and programmatic education about the value of food conservation are crucial to overcoming associated challenges. Montana Team Nutrition implemented a lunch advisory council at each school to engage students in giving input on menu options, which also helped reduce cafeteria waste, says Bark.

Seattle Public Schools has required recycling since 2005 and composting since 2015.

Rina Fa’amoe-Cross, a resource conservation specialist for the district, says educating students and staff about which waste goes in what container is challenging. She points to significant cost savings as one reason to keep outreach—through district-created videos and flyers—that are engaging enough to maintain student and staff interest.

“Our garbage is hauled by rail to eastern Oregon and is four times as expensive as recycling” Fa’amoe-Cross says. “So anything diverted from the garbage to recycling or compost saves money.”

In addition to share tables at lunch, many Seattle schools have gardens with signs that detail how scraps returned to the soil produce more food, Fa’amoe-Cross says. “Educating students about recycling and composting raises community awareness” she says. “[Students] take home those messages and teach their families.”

For Jones, whose Virginia food pantry is visited by 40 to 50 families each week, the logistics of food recovery—coordinating volunteers, finding drivers to transport recovered food, and making sure schools have space and equipment to store food—can be difficult.

However, the significant “big-picture” benefits for students, schools, the community and the environment eclipse those hurdles.

“Hungry [students and their families] get more nutritious food and the amount of waste going to the landfill is reduced,” Jones says. “School food recovery and redistribution [and similar] programs really are a win-win for everyone.”