School Food Waste Is a Big Problem, Let’s Fix It

Washington (GGM) Analysis | November 15, 2022 by Noreen Wise, Founder & CEO of Gallant Gold Media; Image Credit: AdobeStock

Food waste in schools is epidemic. Elementary schools in particular have become food waste overachievers. From stuffed lunch bags and trays — which usually include fresh fruit, packaged applesauce, trail mix and similar snacks that health-conscious parents and school administrators endorse but can’t control — the daily mountain of nourishing food landing in school waste bins, headed for landfills, has reached crisis level. 

On average, approximately 40 million tons of food are thrown into U.S. landfills each year. This sacrilege is worth an alarming $408 billion dollars. Meanwhile, 14 million U.S. households are food insecure, with children going to bed hungry.   

An open letter to school administrators, written by John Williamson, President of Food Rescue, highlighted that one billion food items from school trays are being “fed to landfills annually from American schools.”

According to a Penn State research study on school plate waste in the United States, an international audit conducted during the 2018-2019 school year found that the amount of plate waste in the schools it surveyed in developed countries showed US students tossing out a mind-boggling 27% to 53% of food on their plates, with fruits and vegetables representing the largest proportion of waste, a staggering 50%. Chicken and eggs were at the opposite end of the spectrum representing the least amount of wasted food. 

School Food Waste and the Climate Crisis

Food waste thrown in landfills creates methane which is 80 times times stronger than carbon dioxide when it comes to warming the planet.

“Methane is 80 times more potent than carbon and it accounts for more than half, half of the warming we’re experiencing now. So cutting methane by at least 30% by 2030, can be our best chance to keep within reach of 1.5ºC.”

President Biden, COP27 Egypt

School food waste methane reduction is in the crosshairs of world leaders after 122 countries signed the Global Methane Pledge and now struggle to execute effective strategies for slashing global methane 30 percent from the 2020 level by 2030.

USDA K-12 Food Waste Reduction Recommended Strategies

The U. S. Department of Agriculture has worked feverishly to create awareness about the pervasiveness of school food waste and the harm that it causes, as well as multiple strategies for solving the problem.

  • Offer-versus-serve (OVS) – Enabling students to decline food items they’re not interested in will reduce plate waste significantly. For example, the Penn State research study found that the majority of students they studied didn’t like baked beans and that most students leave all the baked beans on their plates. If given the opportunity to pass, the baked beans wouldn’t be tossed in the garbage bins.
  • Market your meals – It’s important to boost excitement for school meals. The USDA offers fun suggestions such as “holding taste tests and recipe competitions or creating a student advisory committee to provide feedback on food acceptability and recipe names.”
  • Extend lunch from 20-30 minutes – A poll conducted by NPR and Harvard School of Public Health uncovered that as many as 20% of the students surveyed in grades K-5 only had 15 minutes to eat lunch. Rushed meals result in children throwing out food that they otherwise would have eaten had they had more time.  It’s believed that children given the time required to be well-nourished for the second half of the school day will do better academically. For example, the CDC conducted the Youth Behavior Risk Survey (YBRS) in 2019 and found that 42% of the students who received mostly As ate breakfast 7 days a week, while only 20% of the mostly D/Fs students ate breakfast each morning. Mostly Bs were at 31% and mostly Cs 23%. Every single category in the survey showed a direct correlation between grades and dietary habits. Schools in Minnesota have found that having recess before lunch, resulted in students being more focused on what they were eating when they finally sat down to eat lunch, resulting in less waste.
  • Create share tables – Following federal, state and local food and health safety guidelines,  schools can setup a table in the cafeteria where students can drop-off unopened food and beverage items like milk cartons, granola bars, apple sauce, trail mix, unpeeled fruit, etc, which provides an extra portion for students who may still hungry. The USDA offers implementation guidance.
  • Saving food items – Providing children the opportunity to save a packaged food items to snack on later, not only keeps it from being thrown away but also maintains a child’s nourishment level.

Once food waste is minimized, the only thing left will be food scraps for school compost bins. Every school should be composting food scraps. More on that in the next article.

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