Every school day when the end-of-lunch bell rings and students return to class, a little something often gets left behind: the remains of their lunch. Maybe their tray was over-filled, maybe they weren’t hungry yet for lunch, maybe they didn’t have enough time to finish everything. Some of what’s left on their tray might be inedible scraps, like a banana peel, but likely some portion of it is still edible food. Whatever the reason, this food ends up in the trash – to the tune of as much as 530,000 tons each school year in the U.S. alone.
Food is our most precious gift and comes with a tremendous environmental, economic, and social cost. Agriculture’s expanding footprint is the single largest driver of habitat and biodiversity loss. The global food system uses 70% of our fresh water and creates greenhouse gas emissions both during production and when it’s landfilled. And all of this while more than 16 million children in America face hunger.
These numbers come from World Wildlife Fund’s Food Waste Warrior project, a first-of-its-kind combination educational program and plate waste analysis in U.S. school cafeterias. With support from The Kroger Co. Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 4, we collected data in 46 schools across nine cities: Atlanta, Boulder, Cincinnati, Columbus, Indianapolis, Nashville, Phoenix, Portland, and Seattle.
We found that each of the schools produced on average 39.2 pounds of food waste per student per year. For milk – a product that we singled out because of its nutritional value, environmental footprint, and its prevalence on the lunch menu – we found that an average of around 19.4 cartons per student per year are either getting spilled down the drain or tossed messily into the trash.
Starting to test a common methodology around gathering data on cafeteria plate waste was one of the key objectives of this program – to guide students and staff to run audits and consistently examine their waste stream to track progress and reduce. But that wasn’t the only goal. We also sought to engage students and foster an understanding of the connections between food, what goes to waste, and the environment.
While this project didn’t formally test interventions specifically designed to curb waste, something incredible happened: through education, awareness-raising, measurement, and informal interventions, food waste in participating elementary schools dropped an average of 14.5% over the timeline of the audits – about 4-6 weeks. Milk waste across participating schools dropped around 12%. Our top three elementary school performers reduced total food waste per student by a whopping 53% from first to last audit.
If we could cut food waste this much in schools nationwide, it could mean huge benefits for the environment, the students, and the schools themselves. Reducing total wasted food by just 3%, the average we saw from all participating schools, could add up to the equivalent of taking 12,400 passenger vehicles off the road for one year. If schools nationally reduced just milk waste by the average 12.4% we saw in our study, we could potentially save $17 million in lunchroom costs. These savings could be reinvested back into food service programs to improve nutrition while also establishing the cafeteria as a real-world learning environment.
Looking forward, there are several things school districts can do to realize – or even expand on – this opportunity. Solutions range from focusing on a prevention-first model; consistent measuring; staffing up or utilizing volunteers and PTA/PTO investments to take on conservation or natural resource management responsibilities; implementing food rescue programs to help recapture and distribute safe, surplus food to students in need through systems like share tables, backpack programs or local community groups; and at the very least keeping food out of landfills. Schools could be the institutions making landfill diversion happen at scale immediately across the US – and discussing the connections between composting and healthy soils. Food should never be allowed to go to landfills.
While not all solutions will work for all schools, just about everyone can find some ways to reduce their waste. The most important thing schools can do is educate and empower their students. Seeing first-hand how much food is wasted and understanding the connection food has to nature and wildlife, students may willingly change their behavior, and then with any luck they become lifelong food waste warriors. For the sake of the planet we can’t continue wasting 30-40% of all food we produce. A new generation that appreciates the true value of food – and doesn’t view food as a disposable commodity – is an imperative for our future. Time is up, we need action today.