World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works

students stand in line with trays of food

School’s back in, food waste is out

  • Date: 29 September 2021
  • Author: Alex Nichols-Vinueza, Program Manager, Food Loss and Waste

With school back in session and in-person for many around the U.S., students and teachers are once again able to take part in hands-on classroom activities. To keep kids safe, feeding students looks a little different this year in many schools, with some moving lunch outdoors for as long as possible, or shifting away from cafeterias since eating requires taking off masks. But no matter where it’s held, lunch (and in some cases breakfast) is always an amazing opportunity for students and educators to discuss critical lessons about how what we eat impacts our planet, and how much food is wasted every year.

Schools around the country waste approximately 530,000 tons of food per year. But measuring and minimizing food waste in schools can reduce costs and GHG emissions, while providing an enriching learning experience for students to learn about the food system and its impacts.

WWF’s Food Waste Warrior program provides grants, stipends, toolkits, and hands-on lesson plans to help K-12 schools measure and reduce their food waste. It also brings together cohorts of educational professionals that are working to implement food waste reduction programs in schools to share information and lessons learned. This year’s group of grantees comprises 85 educators from schools across 11 states, reaching 25,000 students—many of whom are from underserved communities.

Students in front of a poster that reads, "Be a Food Waste Warrior"

Schools are encouraged to use the interactive lesson plans to engage their students on food waste, to measure and report on their own lunchtime food waste data into WWF’s national data collection tool, and then tailor food waste reduction solutions to their local context. Solutions might include developing a composting program or creating backpack programs, as well as student-led advocacy for district or city wide policy changes on food waste reduction.

Here’s what some of this year’s grantees shared about the program:

“When our students learn about food waste during the school year, it stays with them. They don't see a problem that is too big to fix or an acceptable part of a larger economic system. They see solutions to a larger problem, and that gives me hope.” - SouthTech Preparatory Academy, Florida

“... By facilitating a hands-on learning experience through food waste audits, students play a direct role in keeping food out of landfills. Integrating food waste into [the] curriculum is a great way to talk to students about multiple topics including waste diversion, the negative effects of greenhouse gases, composting, hunger, and environmental justice.” - We Don’t Waste, Colorado

“In Montgomery County, MD, legislators and school system leaders are listening to these students. They are giving these kids the chance to show them that change is possible. Seeing the attention that BCC Capital Compost and Compostology high school students are receiving, is a true inspiration.” - Coalition to ReImagine School Waste, Maryland

Beyond the cafeteria, the program uses stories and data gathered to illustrate larger trends and possible solutions, and then advocates for specific national policy changes. WWF co-developed a Food Waste Action Plan for Congress and the Biden-Harris administration to accelerate progress on the national goal of reducing food loss and waste by 50% by 2030, which includes recommendations to expand funding for schools to measure and reduce their food waste. The plan helped inspire the introduction of the Zero Food Waste Act, which would allow municipalities, Native nations, and states to develop locally-based prevention plans and infrastructure to keep food out of landfills.

WWF’s research was also influential in the design of the bipartisan School Food Recovery Act, led by Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Representative Dan Newhouse (R-WA), and Representative Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR).

Measurement and inspiring the next generation of food waste warriors are two of our most powerful tools for preventing and reducing food waste.