Food: Waste Less and Enjoy! It's Good for All of Us
Between 30% and 40% of food in the U.S. goes uneaten each year.i ii At the same time, nearly 1 in 8 Americans lives in a household that experiences food insecurity.iii Helping to nourish food-insecure neighbors is just one reason to implement a food waste reduction play! Learning how to waste less by taking what you will eat in appropriate portion sizes to promote health and well-being is an opportunity to serve as a leader in your classroom and your community in tackling food waste. This can help the environment because less waste is going into landfills and, in some cases, can help nourish those in need (i.e., when uneaten food can be safely stored and transported to local food banks). This also helps to better appreciate the resources used that go into getting food onto your plateiv, all while making a positive difference in the lives of peoplev, animalsvi and the environment.vii viii
Elementary and secondary schools throw out 2 pounds of food per student every month. With more than 50 million students, just 2 pounds a month adds up to more than half a billion pounds of food wasted each school yearix — that is about the same weight as 1,250 blue whales!x Reducing food waste by just 20% could double food donations, providing 1.8 billion meals each year to help nourish our food-insecure neighbors.xi Implementing a food waste reduction plan also means that you can work with your school nutrition staff and administration to make meals and snacks less wasteful and more exciting.
i Gunders D. Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. 2012. Natural Resources Defense Council. Accessed February 20, 2017.
iiHall KD, Guo J, Dore M, Chow CC . The Progressive Increase of Food Waste in America and Its Environmental Impact. PLoS ONE 2009;4(11):e7940. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007940
iii Household Food Security in the United States in 2015. USDA Economic Research Service. Accessed February 21, 2017.
iv Gunders D. Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. 2012. Natural Resources Defense Council. Accessed February 20, 2017.
Huddle up with your principal and school nutrition staff to find out where your food comes from, including the resources that go into making it and where your waste ends up. Bottom line: Food is too good to waste. Waste often means it goes to a landfill, where it contributes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which are bad for the planet.xi Talk through your school’s daily schedule and how new strategies to address food waste will interact with class, meals and extracurricular activities. Recruit team members to join a Food Waste Reduction Committee that includes your principal, school nutrition staff and students, as well as parent and teacher volunteers. Meet to discuss the different strategies your school can try and who you will need to include.
Students! Here are some things you can do to get things going!
- Considering composting? Include the janitorial staff and contact your county agricultural extension office to ask about local farmers who would be willing to accept food scrap donations.
- For food recovery and donation, you’ll need to include your local food bank or shelter and volunteers to help with donation drop-offs. Reducing food waste works best when you include the whole team — check out the full roster to see who else you should involve in each strategy.
Like any game that’s worth winning, you are bound to run into challenges. That's why the huddle is so important. You want the people on your team to understand that this is a game in which everyone wins.
xi Reducing the Impact of Wasted Food by Feeding the Soil and Composting. EPA Sustainable Management of Food. Accessed March 13, 2017.
Collaborate with your Food Waste Reduction Committee to identify strategies that will work best in your school. Set goals for each strategy — even small successes are worth celebrating!
Consider polling students about what they would be most likely to volunteer to do — help with composting, working with local food pantries, helping collect food for a school pantry or creating flyers.
After you’ve involved the student body and everyone is on board to reduce food waste at your school, the first step toward success is measurement. By measuring wasted food during meals, you will have set a baseline — or starting point — to begin tracking reductions in food waste!
Start small — plan a “Trashless Tuesday” or “Waste-Free Wednesday” to introduce students and staff to the process and gauge how long it takes to measure. Decide on a method for measurement, set up a measurement station and recruit student volunteers to monitor and record wasted food during each meal period. While you’re doing that, consider also polling students to find out why they throw away food. Do they not like it? Out of time? Understanding why food is wasted will help you choose the right strategies to make your play a success!
- Tools for Success:
- Nearby area for handwashing (just in case!)
- A waste tracking log
- Depending on how you measure waste, you may also need a scale and separate bins. Make sure students can clearly differentiate the bins. For easy sorting, use different colored bins — green for food waste, blue for recycling and black for trash.
Consider measuring food waste weekly or every other week to track how well your school is doing throughout the Play. Regular measuring will help you evaluate which of the strategies work best at your school. Use this EPA guide to conducting food waste audits.
- Tools for Success:
Launch an awareness campaign to talk about the importance of reducing food waste and share details on how much food is currently wasted in your school. Continually remind everyone that nutrition isn’t nutrition unless it gets eaten! Keep your classmates up to date and announce successes during morning announcements. Make a poster that displays your goals and mark them off as each is completed so the entire student body is aware of the Play’s accomplishments.
Plan a series of slide shows and videos that can be run on-screen in the cafeteria. Here are some sample videos you can use:
- Jack Johnson’s Sustainable America
- Vanguard Renewables — Jordan Dairy Farm (reducing food waste and helping dairy farms)
- The Extraordinary Life & Times of Strawberry
Create flyers and posters highlighting your program and the important role students can play in reducing food waste. Include the benefits of feeding more people, animals and land with food that would have otherwise been wasted and likely contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Be sure to mention how addressing food waste reduces greenhouse gas emissions and conserves resources used in producing food. You can use the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy to educate classmates, staff, and parents on the importance of different strategies and how they should be prioritized.
Send information home to parents or attend a PTA or PTO meeting to explain your Play. Remember to mention the cost, location, benefits and options so parents or family members can spread the word when they go home. Consider asking parents to join your Food Waste Reduction Committee.
Plan an activity and set up a test run. Now that you know how much food is wasted at your school, you can start implementing strategies to waste less, nourish more, help the environment and enjoy more! Pilot a strategy for one month and document progress every week. After the first month, review progress and identify areas for improvement — build on your successes until you are meeting your goals on a regular basis! If your first strategy has been successful, add another to make your play as impactful as possible.
Build student leadership opportunities. As much as possible, get students involved in planning and running your programs. Look into the possibility of students earning service learning hours. Students should lead the Food Waste Reduction Committee and consider creating subcommittees for different reduction, recovery and recycling strategies. Put students in the driver’s seat as much as possible. They’ll learn valuable life lessons on how to plan and implement programs, and they’ll feel great about helping people, animals and the environment!
Avoiding food waste before it happens (reduction) conserves resources and can help schools save money on food purchasing and disposal costs.
- Ensure weekly menus are clearly posted in classrooms and lunchrooms to help students decide what to eat each day.
- Remind students of the next day’s menu choices during afternoon announcements.
- Work with nutrition staff to make meal options more appealing by providing student feedback on menus or recipes as well as how to display food to encourage healthy choices and proper portion control. As with other Plays, holding taste tests are always a good way to find out what students like!
- Talk to your principal and school nutrition staff about additional strategies to help reduce waste before it starts — this could be as simple as serving sliced fruits or implementing Offer Versus Serve.
Food recovery or rescue is the organized collection and donation of excess food to those in need.
- Find your local food bank or shelter and ask what types of food donations they can accept.
- Start a school food pantry that donates unused — but still nutritious and delicious — food directly to families and students attending your school.
- Ask your school counselor about food insecurity in your own student population.
- Notify students and parents about the pantry, times it is open and the types of food you will be handing out.
- Reach out to schools in your district to see who else could benefit from your pantry.
- Set up a sharing table where students can give or take individual items that would otherwise be thrown out. (Note: Be sure to check with your school nutrition professionals about any regulations that should be followed.)
- Establish a list of food items that are safe to share — unopened milk stored at the right temperature, packaged foods and fruit with peels. (Again, be sure you work with nutrition professionals in your school so you are following all safety regulations.)
- Work with student volunteers to monitor the table and ensure only approved items are exchanged.
- Food left on the sharing table at the end of a meal period can be donated to your local donation partner.
- Each week, total up the weight of rescued food and enter it into this food recovery calculator to see your impact!
Recycling food that cannot be donated is a wonderful way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve soil health. Your food contains energy and nutrients that are useful not only for feeding people but also for feeding animals and plants. By recycling uneaten food, you can preserve the resources that would otherwise be wasted and put them to their next best use. Food scraps can be used to feed cows, pigs and other livestock or even to generate electricity by converting the nutrients into a valuable form of sustainable energy. Composting food scraps and inedible foods or breaking them down to create a nutrient-dense plant food can be done in your school’s garden, at a community garden, at a commercial composting facility and even indoors!
- You’ll need separate collection bins, compostable bin liners and gloves.
- All bins should be clearly labeled with images and staffed by a volunteer.
- Collect discarded fruits and veggies to feed plants in your school’s garden or find a community garden that could benefit.
- Ask your science teachers about different methods of composting, such as vermicomposting.
- Ask your County Agricultural Extension Office to connect you with local farmers who would be willing to accept food scraps — either for compost or animal feed.
- Also consider developing partnerships with your local 4-H club or nearest Future Farmers of America chapter
Spread the Word
Have students create posters about your program and highlight creative ways to re-use food. Distribute flyers in classrooms and advertise your Play during morning announcements. Get the word out on your school's website or blog or in your school's eNewsletter!
Involve the community. Schedule a meeting with your school's PTA or PTO and provide information on how the program is good for students and the community. Keep them updated on the goals and successes of the program.
Register your school to participate in the USDA’s U.S. Food Waste Challenge and encourage other schools in your district to do the same.
Share student stories, videos and pics on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram tagging FUTP 60 (FB: @FuelUpToPlay60; IG and TW: @FUTP60) and using #FuelGreatness!
Think long term. Create a student task force to notify local businesses and ask if they would like to sponsor monthly prizes in support of a food waste challenge. Don’t forget to thank everyone involved and provide them with regular updates on your accomplishments. Reengage businesses at the end of each school year and keep an eye out for new ones you can recruit to help you with next year’s plans! Review this Food Waste — Long-Term Strategies document for ideas on how to keep building.
Invite agents from your local county agricultural extension office or public health agency to visit the school and talk about the importance of reducing food waste. Ask local farmers to come as well and speak about the benefits of compost and soil health and what they do on their own farms to reduce food waste.
Set up some friendly competitions between classes, grades or even subject areas (e.g., the science department vs. social studies). Always think about ways to include nearby schools in each of your challenges.
- Host a school-wide competition to select fun, creative names for lunchroom items.
- Organize a poster contest to raise awareness about wasted food. Winning submissions can be posted around school, and copies can be sent home to share with parents or hung at local businesses.
- Launch a challenge between different lunch periods to see who can reduce the most food waste!
- Consider planning a food recovery challenge that involves multiple schools in your district like this one in Long Island.
- Measure your waste — even if it is just for one day — of everything you eat and throw away.
- Involve everyone in your household when planning meals — including school lunches — and shop accordingly.
- Take your leftovers home with you when you dine out. If you don’t think you’ll eat them in time, incorporate them into other meals.
- Ask for half portions or shared plates when dining out.
- Encourage your grocer and local restaurants to buy local food and “ugly produce.”
- Talk to your parents, children, friends and coworkers about food waste and share strategies that you’ve tried, either at home or at school.
Homefield Advantage provides useful, practical ways for parents and family members to get involved in making this Play a success — in school and at home! Click here for a printout that students can take home to share.
This Play may help you meet the goals of the USDA's HealthierUS School Challenge!
Just getting started? Here is something you can do without jumping right into the full Play. Let this idea get you warmed up so you’re ready to tackle the full Play!
Create a Food Waste Reduction Committee to measure how much food is being wasted in your school. A visual assessment - of all, 3/4, 1/2, 1/4, or no food wasted - from each student's meal will give you an idea of how much food is being thrown out.
Share this video with your student body showing the importance of reducing food waste in schools and how elementary students in Hawaii have taken charge in addressing food waste. Ask your classmates why reducing food waste matters to them.
Funding and Outfitting Your Play
What might help?
- Educational posters and flyers
- Waste tracking logs
- Camera for photo-documenting your success
- Food recovery and rescue supplies
- Boxes, bags and other containers for packaging and transporting food
- Access to a vehicle for drop-offs
- Access to a fridge and freezer for perishable items
- Insulated bags for cooler items
- Composting supplies
- Compost collection bins
- Food scrap buckets for measurement
- Compostable trash bags
- Heavy duty or kitchen-grade scale
- Clear, colorful signage and bin labels
- Red wriggler worms (for vermicomposting or school garden composting)
Funds for Fuel Up to Play 60
Up to $4,000 per year is available to qualified K-12 schools enrolled in Fuel Up to Play 60 to kick-start healthy changes!
Note: It's a great idea to consult with your school's nutrition team when applying for a Healthy Eating grant! Many state and regional dairy councils require it.
If you plan to start a school garden funding can be found using the following resources:Note: It’s a great idea to consult with your school’s nutrition team when applying for a grant!