The blog is sponsored by CoBank, who shares the National Farm to School Network's mission of growing farm to school to support farmers and vibrant rural communities. We thank CoBank for being a sponsor of our 2018 National Farm to School Month Celebrations.

By Elizabeth Esparza, NFSN Communications Intern

Observe any school cafeteria during a typical lunchtime, and you are bound to witness a perplexing problem. On the one hand, you would certainly see students who rely on school meals to meet their daily nutritional needs getting the food they need. Simultaneously, on any normal day, you would also undoubtedly notice the staggering amount of waste that cafeterias across the country inevitably produce.

Though plate waste abounds, schools and communities throughout the country are stepping up to fight the issue with creative solutions. Reducing plate waste in schools is an important things to consider in ensuring that all students get the food they need while working to send less food to the landfill. Here are a few examples of how school campuses across the country are taking steps to put more food in tummies, and send less food into trash bins.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine recently published a how-to Guide to Reduce Wasted Food in Maine’s K-12 Schools. One of the study’s coauthors, Ryan Parker, formerly a commercial farmer, was interested in how much it was costing school districts to purchase and prepare food that would ultimately be thrown away. Recognizing the barriers schools encounter in reducing their food waste such as limited staff time, serving mandates, and the length of lunchtime, the guide focuses on composting and share tables, two great ways to make sure the food they produce doesn’t go to waste. Public schools produce 1.9% of food waste in the country, which amounts to 36.5 pounds of food per student per year. Though there is certainly more waste to be found in other areas such as households, schools provide a great opportunity to teach and influence students to create positive habits for the future. Check out the guide from some practical examples that can be implemented at any school.

The Campus Kitchens Project, a national program of DC Central Kitchen, has an innovative model to turn what could be waste into much needed meals for the community. The program works with students at 65 universities and high school campuses throughout the country to transform unused food from cafeterias and other community kitchens into meals for their hungry neighbors. With a model that targets the many root causes of hunger, Campus Kitchens not only feeds those who need it and keeps food from going to waste, it also creates opportunities for high school and college students to gain leadership and entrepreneurial skills that can benefit them into their future careers. Here’s an example of the impact one school has made through the program: Gonzaga College High School, located in Washington, D.C., has recovered 28,990 pounds of food since launching in 2005. The Campus Kitchen cooks twice a week, and delivers twice a week to mostly senior, low-income housing communities - watch the video the learn more! Overall, schools participating in The Campus Kitchen Project in the 2016-2017 academic year recovered 991,872 pounds of food that would have otherwise gone to waste, and prepared 378,423 nutritious meals for those in need.

Another key strategy for reducing food waste is educating students about why this is an important issue in the first place. The more students know about food waste, food insecurity, and the complete cycle of the food system, the more likely they are to be conscious of what's left on their plate at the end of a meal. In Michigan, fifth graders at Traverse Heights Elementary have had a hands-on lesson with bananas (rescued from a local grocery story) that illustrated how much food is wasted despite the fact that many people are food insecure. In Arkansas, Washington Elementary School found success when students led a food plate waste audit. In the months following the audit, students reduced their milk waste by 20% and shared various unopened lunch meal items (e.g. milks, apples, oranges, etc.) as afternoon snacks with other students. And in Hawai'i, the Kokua Hawai‘i Foundation's 3R’s School Recycling Program focuses on educating students to reduce, reuse and recycle waste in gardens, schoolyards, cafeterias, and classrooms. The program trains students leaders to engage their school community in implementing a school-wide recycling system by conducting classroom presentation, creating campaign materials, and serving as mentors on campus. Empowering students to feel knowledgeable and invested in taking action to reduce waste in the cafeterias and throughout their school campuses is an important step in creating lasting impacts on reduced school food waste.

Whether they utilize share tables, composting, or transforming food, schools and communities are working to combat food waste by reducing what they are able to, reusing what they can, and repurposing what is left.

If you are interested in fighting food waste in your school, here are some more resources to get you started:

Are you taking steps to reduce food waste in your school? We’d love to hear about it! Send us a note via our Story Form or tag us in a post on social media.