Foolproof Ways to Reduce Food Waste in K-12 Cafeterias

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As a Nutrition Director, you work hard and the proof is in the numbers.

Each year, you help feed over 30 million children in the U.S., adding up to an astonishing 4.8 billion lunches. That’s a lot of lunches, and something to be super proud of. The caveat: a high volume of food served creates a high volume of food waste in K-12 cafeterias. 

According to the USDA, up to 40% of the food supply in the United States is thrown away. On the list of food waste contributors, K-12 schools fall far below restaurants and grocery stores. And yet, an estimated 26% of the average NSLP-participating school food budget ends up in the trash.

To be fair, your job is a major balancing act. Every day, you serve hundreds of students in less than half an hour while pushing healthier options and following regulations and keeping budget in mind all to turn around the lunchroom and do it again.

K-12 students can be picky, messy and just plain wasteful.  All things considered, it’s easy to see why it’s difficult to make 100% perfect use of inventory.

The point: food waste is…well…wasteful. Plus, there are a few notable benefits to be gained from reducing food waste in your K-12 cafeteria, like:

  • Saved costs on inventory that isn’t selling
  • Uneaten foods can be re-allocated to those in need
  • Having a greener lunchroom helps the environment

The good news? All is not lost, there is a lot you and your team can do to reduce waste, make better use of your inventory and even do some good for your community.

How to Reduce Food Waste in Your K-12 Cafeteria

Who doesn’t love ideas they can put into action with relative ease? Read on for some very simple ways that you and your team can cut down on food waste in your K-12 cafeteria.

Regularly engage with students and staff for input.

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A simple conversation with students and staff tells you a lot about what’s going to waste and why. In a survey, students and parents expressed concerns that the short window allotted for lunch— as little as 20 minutes— isn’t enough time to finish eating. And this school found that slicing apples led to 60% higher consumption than serving them whole. 

It is small takeaways like these that go a long way toward your efforts in reducing food waste in your K-12 cafeteria. 

Take advantage of the technology you’re already using.

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You’re already using nutrition technology to power your lunchroom. Use it to determine which items are unpopular. Kale chips were a great idea in theory, but your POS system might say differently. Watch your inventory like a hawk and plan menus based on your current stock.

Once you know which menu and a la carte items are most loved by students and staff, you can ramp up participation through promotion. You can easily generate excitement about what you’re serving by…

  • Posting your menu on the district’s website;
  • Using digital menus and boards around the school;
  • Promoting on the social media profiles for your school or your cafeteria;
  • Sending email newsletters to families so your menu is always top-of-mind.

Offer vs. serve.

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If you haven’t already, consider switching to an offer vs. serve model to reduce unnecessary food waste.

In a recent school audit, it was uncovered that 13 gallons of milk were thrown away in one day. And yet, the government has not mandated that students must take a carton of milk with their lunch since 1982.  

Allowing students to choose items like milk or fruit could lead to a lot less inventory being thrown in the trash. 

Create a share table.

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Adding a share table is a fantastic way to reduce food waste in K-12 cafeterias. In case you are unaware, s share table is a place in your cafeteria to put extra, uneaten food items that are then offered to students or donated.

And it’s easy to see why they’re so popular in K-12 cafeterias: they cost very little to set up and help to feed those in need. On top of that, share tables help reduce food waste. While share tables being incredibly easy to implement, only around 500 of 98,000 public schools have one.

Of course, it may not be possible for your school to support this option due to COVID-19. Start dreaming up the best location in your cafeteria now! We recommend placing your share table before the trash and clearly label separate bins for items like fruits or vegetables.

Interested in planning a share table of your own? The Green Gloves Program from Oakland Unified School District offers tons of free resources here!

Donate uneaten food to a good cause.

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You’ve adjusted your inventory to your students’ tastes, planned meals accordingly, and offered uneaten foods to other students. Now, what do you do with the leftovers? Donate, donate, donate!

Due to the fear of liability, many organizations throw perfectly good food away instead of donating it. However, food directors have been protected under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act since 1996. 

There are rules to consider: this resource will help you better understand what can be donated.

If it must go to waste, consider composting.

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Fewer than 5% of schools compost, but it can be a great option. Do you have a school garden that could benefit from compost? Or maybe there’s a local farm you can donate to?

You’ll need to educate your staff and student body which items to trash, which items to recycle and which items are for compost. This article has more information on how to get your school’s compost program started. 

2021 is the year to reduce waste in your K-12 cafeteria.

In 2017, 12% of U.S. households didn’t know where their next meal would come from. With statistics like this as our reality, reallocating uneaten food to those in need is incredibly important.

Seeking insight from your students and staff, utilizing your technology, and donating uneaten items are guaranteed ways to reduce food waste in K-12 cafeterias. Plus, it can save your district money and do some good for the environment, too.

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