If you’ve ever volunteered in a school lunchroom, you’ve seen it: bags of half-eaten chips and cookies, or uneaten fruit, veggies, sandwiches and other food in overflowing trash cans. It’s clear that school food waste is a problem. According to USDA, K-12 Schools throw away roughly $1.2 billion worth of food each year, and up to 40%  of all the food produced in the U.S. (worth about $218 billion annually) ends up in landfills. The federal government is calling for a for a 50-percent reduction in this waste by 2030. The issue is complex, but several schools have started taking active steps to reduce this waste. Here are ten things you can do to reduce waste starting now.

    1. Pack your own:
      The single easiest thing you can do (and ensure your children are getting the nutrition they need) is to pack their lunches. In fact, involve your children in the process because if they prepare their own  sandwich, salad or meal, they’re more likely to eat it because they know what they like and sometimes parents get their kids’ preferences confused. I learned this the hard way when my daughter brought home an uneaten turkey and mustard sandwich and I realized I put mustard on the wrong daughter’s sandwich. Here are some tips for making nutritious and fun lunches.
    2.  Talk to your kids about portions:
      Coach them to bring home uneaten food so you can keep tabs on what they don’t finish. For instance: Are the giant apples you’re buying too big for them to finish during lunch? If you find a half-eaten

      Eating perfect sized lunch

      Tip: Talk to your children about what they realistically eat at lunch to better adjust portions.

      apple on a regular basis, you have your answer. Grocery stores now sell small apples, perfect for younger children’s appetites. Another option is to cut apples into slices and sprinkle with cinnamon or orange juice to preserve them. Crispy Green’s Crispy Fruit comes in individual portion-sized packages so is perfect for snacking and stays fresh and won’t end up smushed in the bottom of your children’s backpacks.

    3. Get scientific:
      Encourage your school to conduct a lunchroom audit. SWANCC (Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County) near Chicago has been working with schools and communities to reduce waste for over a decade.  Its website has tons of resources to help your school reduce lunchroom waste. It recommends schools conduct a lunchroom audit to help students learn the magnitude of the solid waste one cafeteria can generate in a day. Perfect for middle school through high school students, the audit is a research project involving  Science, Math, Social Studies & Health. The students under volunteer parent or teacher supervision, measure (usually by weight) the amount of garbage collected in one day and classify the contents of it. This is the first step in understanding what’s being thrown out. Once schools understand this, they can better zero in how to reduce the waste. It’s suggested that schools take additional audits throughout the year to gauge improvement.
    4. Push for ala  carte:
      Schools that serve scratch-made meals that allow students to select items ala carte report less waste than those that serve pre-packaged meals that force students to take foods they’re unlikely to eat. Encourage your child to only take what they think they can eat.
    5. Kick the water bottle habit:
      Ask your school to stop selling plastic water bottles. Install drinking fountains with water filter dispensers to encourage kids to bring their own reusable water bottles. Milk cartons are another source of waste. Use cups and ask kids to fill up the amount of milk they plan on drinking from large milk dispensers. 
    6. Time it:
      A lot of kids complain because they don’t get enough time to eat lunch, and then lunchroom attendants rush them to dump their uneaten food in the garbage. If this is an issue for your child, consider having them pack a lunch, so they don’t waste time waiting in the cafeteria line, or talk to your child about how much time they’re spending gabbing with their friends vs. eating. If the time is really an issue, speak with your school about it. 
    7. Save, Share or Compost:
      If your child runs out of time to finish their lunch or doesn’t have an appetite for it, encourage him or her to bring home any uneaten snacks and nonperishable food to consume after school or later. Alternatively, if your school has a “Share” table, encourage them to leave the food there for someone else to enjoy. If it’s organic matter that’s partially eaten and your school has a compost program, they can leave a half-eaten apple or orange in the school compost bin.

      Teach kids how to properly dispose of their waste. If your school composts make sure your student knows how to do it correctly.

    8. Ice it:
      Ice packs are a great way to keep your son or daughter’s lunch fresh and prevent spoilage. Ice packs come in fun shapes and sizes perfect to pop into a lunch bag. Entire bags are also made of material meant to be frozen at night to keep lunches cool.
    9. Exercise first:
      Research shows that schools that move lunch to the period after recess found that kids ate more because they had built up an appetite, and therefore threw out less food.
    10. Build a bar:
      Schools with salad bars reduce waste and get more kids to eat fresh produce, studies also show. Many children prefer raw veggies to cooked ones, and with the salad bar they’re given the freedom to select what and how much of each item they want. Also, salad bars are a great way to incorporate produce from local farmers and the school’s garden and expose kids to veggies they might not have eaten before. When I managed a school garden, the students would help us harvest cucumbers, squash, beans, carrots and tomatoes, and when we brought them into the cafeteria to sample, the kids would mob us trying to get a slice of a giant cucumber because they’d help grow it. There are even grants available to help your school get started with a salad bar.

While lunchroom waste represents a small amount of the overall food waste in the United States, it’s still a critical part because it’s an opportunity to instill in the next generation of consumers the value of conserving food. So, if you’ve got school-aged children, take note. This is a chance to teach them to be better stewards of the environment and about the value of food, too. 

–Patty Yeager


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