15 Ways to Reduce Waste in School Cafeterias

Recently a concerned mom asked me if I had any ideas to reduce waste in school cafeterias. When my email back to her grew longer and longer, I realized I had better just write a blog post on the topic. The school year may have ended (or will end soon) here in the US but you may want to start thinking ahead to next year now.

Since money is always an issue, I’ve grouped these waste-reducing ideas into three categories: ideas that cost money, save money or incur upfront expenses.

Ideas that cost nothing

1. Do a waste audit

To get an idea of what winds up in the cafeteria trash bins, have students begin to track that waste and create graphs with the statistics. If the school cafeteria resembles most American homes, food waste likely makes up a the largest portion of overall wasteWeekly, the students could track that food waste, along with plastic waste and other waste. Once the kids and staff realize what goes to waste most, they can make a plan to reduce that waste.

Let’s say the food audit reveals that a large percentage of waste is uneaten, edible food. The next three ideas can help reduce that food waste.

2. Serve smaller portions of food on smaller dishes

Most of us will fill up a plate to the edges in a buffet or cafeteria-style setting. Kids often do the same. Smaller plates can hold only so much food.

3. Give kids enough time to eat

If students don’t have enough time to eat their lunch, they can’t eat their lunch and might waste it. This study suggests students need at least 25 minutes. The study also found that kids also tend to eat more fruit and vegetables when they have more time.

4. Change the menu

Ask the students why they don’t like the menu items that wind up in the trash most. If they hate bland, steamed green beans—and can you blame them?—consider a quick sauté with seasoning instead. If a lot of juice and milk goes to waste, push the water more (push it regardless—see #11). Unless the school swaps out some items on the menu for more expensive ones, this change shouldn’t increase costs.

5. Measure progress

After determining the sources of waste and implementing solutions, kids can also track their progress by comparing audits. When they see that they have made strides in reducing waste, they will not only feel proud of their accomplishment, they will more likely keep at it. And their enthusiasm may rub off at home. Kids are always ahead of their parents. I’m lucky I have a teenager to keep me hip. Okay, to keep me up-to-date…

6. Does the cafeteria recycle or toss anything of use?

My older daughter MK works in restaurants part-time to help pay for university in Canada. She tells me the amount of waste she sees would send me over the edge. She has salvaged one item in particular from every restaurant she has worked in—jars.

I could easily change my blog name to “The Crazy Jar Lady.” I covet jars. I love jars. I can’t get enough of these precious objects. This summer, MK has brought me home about 20 of the jars pictured below—so far. They hold eight cups. Each. They cost about $6 at a store—so I have over $100 worth. Tossing jars like these in the recycling bin is sheer madness! Earlier this week, MK looked at my giant stack of giant jars and asked me, “Do you still want me to bring you home more jars?” “Yes,” I said. “Bring the jars. I need all of the jars.” (I have given some away to fellow jar enthusiasts.) Perhaps your school cafeteria similarly throws out items that parents would find useful at home.

What about food waste? Many food rescue organizations operate throughout the country, picking up and distributing edible food. Where I live in Northern California, these organizations include Food ShiftSecond Harvest, and Food Runners, among others.

large glass jars
Large jars from the restaurant where my daughter works
7. Work food waste into the curriculum: Pick a subject, any subject

If kids learn about food waste, they’ll help reduce it. These are just some ideas off the top of my head. (All you homeschoolers out there might like some of these also.)

Home Economics (Somewhere a School Still Teaches This…)

  • Gardening. When kids grow vegetables, kids eat vegetables. They will appreciate the hard work that goes into growing food and likely waste less of it.
  • Cooking. If kids learn to cook, they can help reduce food waste at home. Because if they know what to do with that handful of ingredients in the back of the refrigerator, they can cook them rather than watch mom or dad toss them out.
  • Household money management. Every year, the average American family of four throws out food costing between $1,365 to $2,275, according to the NRDC.

Math—so many variables!

  • Measure food waste.
  • Create and interpret graphs.
  • Calculate the cost of food waste.
  • Calculate the amount of fuel required to ship that wasted food from the farm to the grocery store.
  • Calculate how much water and other resources went into growing the wasted food.

Science

  • Climate change. Food rotting in landfill releases methane gas, a green-house-gas more potent than carbon dioxide.
  • Plant biology. Learn about the lifecycle from seed to plant to compost.
  • Biology of livestock. Discuss resources required to grow the food that we feed the animals that we eat.
  • The ecosystem of a compost pile. Bugs, worms and bacteria break down food scraps into black gold.

Language Arts

  • Writing. Kids could write research papers on food waste, plastic waste, ocean health, the food–environment connection and so on.
  • Reading. I found this long list of environmental books and DVDs, compiled by Iowa Public Television, for students from grades 3 to 8. Some of them cover waste. Personally, I would put The Lorax by Dr. Suess at the top of my list of favorite environmental books. And if I taught high school English, my students would read The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, dystopian novels by Margaret Atwood that take place in the US after unnamed environmental disasters. (The TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is fantastic.)

Economics/Business

  • The concepts of profit and loss. The farmer pays for the seeds, the labor, the equipment, the fossil fuels to ship the food and on and on, yet the grocery stores usually buy only perfect looking produce from farms. Lots of food rots in the fields, eating away at the bottom line.
  • The cost of managing waste. Grocery stores pay to dispose of wasted food and pass those costs onto the consumer. Parents pay for curbside pickup. Landfills need to be maintained.
  • Startups and business models. Companies like Imperfect Produce and Hungry Harvest divert ugly fruit and vegetables from landfill and deliver them to customers in CSA boxes.

Religion/Ethics

  • Social justice. Food waste is a social justice issue. While 40 percent of food goes to waste in the US, 1 in 6 Americans is food insecure.
  • Fasting. Most religions prescribe fasting rituals. I’m not sure how to tie this one in. You can make it work.
  • The feeding of the 5000. Jesus used up everything.

Art

  • Posters. Create these for the cafeteria: “Take All You Want But Eat All You Take” or “What Can Go in the Compost Bin” or “Make Water Your Drink of Choice.”
  • Homemade fabric dyes. You can make beautiful dyes out of food scraps—onion skins, beets, carrots, red cabbage, citrus peels, spinach.
  • Homemade paper. Make new paper out of paper and paperboard recovered from the cafeteria’s recycling bins. (My kids and I did this often when they were little.) Here’s how you do it (but use thin dishtowels, not paper towels when you blot the new paper).
8. Work plastic waste into the curriculum

Many of the same subjects from above will work: home economics (how to pack a plastic-free lunch), math (all the measuring and calculations), science (the oceans and animals harmed by plastic pollution in the oceans), art (collages made from plastic waste). I think the trick here is to discuss plastic pollution without depressing the kids.

9. Compost

Does the school cafeteria already compost food scraps and food waste? If not, help them get started. Check out this website for information, ideas and inspiration for school composting programs. But remember, composting food is a last resort. Prevent food waste first.

First, prevent food waste, then compost

Ideas that save money

10. Eat lower on the food chain

Paul Hawken’s new book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming—I’ll write a review of it after I finish reading it—lists 100 of the “most substantive solutions” to reverse climate change. Four of Hawken’s top 10 solutions relate to the food system, with eating a plant-based diet ranking fourth (reducing food waste also makes it into his top 10). Just how do you convince kids to eat more vegetables? It’s actually pretty simple. You make them taste good (see #4).

11. Make water the drink of choice

My daughter’s school cafeteria doesn’t serve soda but I know from watching the documentary Fed Up that some school cafeterias do. (I found the kindergartener’s red chairs emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo one of the most sickening images in a film filled with sickening images!). Like juice, soda contains piles of sugar also—it’s fruit stripped of its vital fiber. Milk often comes packaged in small, single-serving cartons. Water from the tap has no packaging. Encourage kids to drink it with their meals. If they have reusable water bottles, remind them to bring them. 

Ideas that incur up-front expenses

12. Bring in speakers and plan events

I’ve given zero-waste presentations and workshops at libraries, parks and at schools. So if you live in The Bay Area… Your city’s waste department likely has programs and can recommend a speaker for your school. Kids also enjoy beach cleanups and tours of waste facilities and farms. These types of activities will inspire students to reduce waste.

13. Install water fountains and refill stations

I can’t imagine schools don’t have water fountains but perhaps I am completely naive, living here in the bubble of Silicon Valley. I do know that public areas sorely lack water fountains in many cities however. This step will help step #11 succeed.

14. Invest in reusables and ban straws

From the kitchen to the dining hall, look for areas to reduce waste. Invest in cloth napkins and towels rather than paper versions. At my daughters’ very small elementary school, parents took turns washing towels for the various classrooms every week (sorry, I just made more work for you). Serve food on real plates, with real cutlery and real cups. Ban straws outright.

15. Serve real food

The healthy stuff has less packaging, if any—fruits, vegetables and other whole foods. Yes, serving this type of food will drive up school costs because preparing and cooking real food requires more staff resources than heating up processed food does. But we have to look at the overall cost to society. The costs of treating and managing preventable diseases—heart disease, stroke, type II diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease—associated with the Western diet of processed food-like products will cripple our healthcare system. Kids who eat real food are healthy kids.

5 Comment

  1. This blog post needs to be send to every educator out there, from top to bottom. Wow, Ann Marie, I applaud you for putting this together. Just shared it on my twitter and if I come across any educator who is willing to listen, I’ll be sure to share this post with him/her. It’s not about doing everything in one day or one school year because that’s perfection. It’s far more sustainable and doable to select a handful, tackle those and accomplish them really well, feeling good about those accomplishments and moving forward with that positive momentum.

    Again, I am in awe of the thoughts and effort you’ve put into this. The world needs more people like you, Ann Marie. Can you be my neighbor please?! 😀

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Lol. Thanks Natalie. You just made my day! Thanks for sharing! ~ Anne Marie

  2. *Anne-Marie, not Ann Marie. AHHHH, sorry dear!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      No problem!

  3. Passing this excellent, concise, and well-designed plan of action to my (sadly, rather limited) social media peeps. I wish every school principal, teacher, cafeteria manager, and school board member could see it. Seeing it isn’t enough, of course, but it’s a start. Thank you.

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