World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works

Food Waste Warriors

Our most critical classroom: The Cafeteria

  • Date: 02 October 2018
  • Author: Pete Pearson, Director of Food Waste

The expanding footprint of food and agriculture represents one of the biggest threats to biodiversity on the planet. Even more problematic, it’s estimated that the US wastes 63 million tons of food every year, and 90 percent or more of that ends up in a landfill where it causes potent greenhouse gas emissions. But go into most K-12 classrooms and the environmental impact of our food system probably isn’t a hot topic yet.

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) serves more than 31 million children in over 100,000 schools each day, while the School Breakfast Program (SBP) serves over 14 million – both providing free and reduced meals to eligible children. Last year, WWF conducted a pilot program in Washington, DC and engaged schools across the city to understand the best ways to reduce food waste in schools and ensure edible food doesn’t get tossed. To do this, WWF introduced the Food Waste Warrior curriculum, which works with teachers and student leaders to conduct food waste audits in their cafeteria and calculate the environmental impact of wasted food.

When we waste food, we waste the energy, water and often wildlife habitat that is sacrificed to grow that food – which means a food waste curriculum fits nicely with other topics. The Food Waste Warrior lesson plan can be paired with science, ecology, habitat conservation and sustainability curriculums, and it’s free for educators as part of WWF’s Wild Classroom platform.

Conducting regular student-led food waste audits can help schools better understand which foods are being wasted most and why. It also encourages participation from food service professionals to get students eating healthy and ensuring healthy food does not go to waste. As we went into schools, the WWF team worked to organize a comprehensive educational toolkit, which included the resources like the Guide to Conducting Student Food Waste Audits produced by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Melissa Terry of the University of Arkansas. These resources help to clarify rules and policies for share tables and food donation programs, which can be a source of confusion for school administrators.

What we found after going into cafeterias was that school food waste is a complex and challenging topic that requires diverse partnerships to tackle. Partnering with schools and introducing our lesson plan created a unique opportunity to leverage students' passion for wildlife and nature. However, it quickly became evident teachers can’t do this alone and need help to make these programs come to life.

To that end, WWF has teamed up with The Kroger Co. Foundation to gain support in expanding this program, which aligns with Kroger’s Zero Hunger | Zero Waste social impact plan. With Kroger’s help, we’re encouraging eight more cities across the US to take on this food waste reduction challenge. WWF is initiating a Request for Proposals (RFP) to the following cities: Seattle, Portland (OR), Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Columbus (OH), Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Nashville. Independent consultants and experienced organizations are encouraged to send proposals to organize food waste reduction programs in schools from January through June of 2019. The RFP can be found here.

In Atlanta, the program has already been kickstarted with an additional exciting grant from EPA Region 4. This will allow student food waste reduction to go further faster and serve as a guide for other cities and schools.

The Food Waste Warrior program attempts to get us all thinking differently about food and its impact on the planet. For many students, there is no connection between the food on their plate and wildlife and the environment. Teaching students, educators and food-service staff about the true value of food is now an imperative for our future generations if we want to ensure they inherit a healthy planet.

Learn more about the DC pilot program and best practices for implementing Food Waste Warriors at your school here.