According to a study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency of Minnesota public schools, food waste makes up 23.9% of the total waste generated by schools, the single most common type, of waste.
In the 2009-2010 school year, the National School Lunch Program provided low-cost or free lunches to over 31 million children in 101,000 public and non-profit private schools and residential child care institutions at a cost of $8.9 billion. A subsidy of $2.70 went to each free lunch served to students; $2.30 to each reduced-cost meal, and 30 cents for each full-priced lunch. The best national estimate for plate waste at K-12 schools is approximately 12% of calories from food.
The Food Assistance & Nutrition Research Program of the Economic Research Service issued a report on plate waste in school nutrition programs in March 2002. Analysis of plate waste for the 15 years prior to that resulted in several findings:
- Girls tend to waste more food than boys.
- Younger children tend to waste more than older children.
- Plate waste varies by food type, with salad, vegetables and fruit usually reported to be the most wasted items.
The fewer than 5% of elementary schools that schedule recess before lunch have less food waste. A study found that when students weren’t anxious to get outside to play and had already worked up an appetite by doing so, plate waste was reduced from 40.7% to 27.2%. Another survey of Loveland, Colorado, students found that kids ate more of their lunches - and behaved better in class - when they ate after recess than when they had lunch before playtime.
The availability of junk food—”competitive foods”—contributes to food waste in school cafeterias as well. Students may pass over healthier lunch options in favor of chips and candy found in vending machines. A GAO study found that 43% of elementary schools, 73.9% of middle schools, and 98.2% of high schools had vending machines, school stores, canteens, or snack bars. And at those schools the majority of competitive foods offered were snacks high in fat, sodium, and/or added sugars. A study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that “the high prevalence of junk food in school vending machines does not support students' ability to make healthy food choices or parents’ ability to feed their children well.”
Alice Waters, founder of Edible Schoolyard, believes that when we’re connected to the source of our food, we place a much higher value on it. “When children grow food and cook it, they eat it, all of it. And they like to be in the kitchen and at the table.” Recently, a study by the Chez Panisse Foundation of Edible Schoolyard showed that “gardening and culinary education increased students’ nutrition knowledge and broadened their taste for and consumption of fruits and vegetables.” When students have a hand in producing the food served in their cafeteria, they’re much less likely to waste it at lunchtime.
All-you-can-eat cafeterias encourage food waste at college campuses across the United States. Michigan State University students each waste an average of 1.54 pounds of food per week—at a school of 47,800 people that’s 14,191 pounds of food per day. Based on a study of dining hall meals over the course of two weeks, a Virginia Tech student discovered annual rates of 169,055 pounds of edible food waste and 202,797 pounds of total compostable waste.
Traditionally, college students load up trays as they move down the line at dining halls, generally taking more food than they can eat in an effort to get the most out of expensive meal plans. Trayless dining is a surefire way to reduce food waste, in addition to conserving water and energy from washing trays or waste generated from disposable trays. Students at American University wasted 14.4% less food and used 22.5% fewer dishes at lunch and 30.8% fewer dishes at dinner. At Alfred University, combined food and beverage waste dropped between 30 and 50% when the university embraced trayless dining. The University of Maine at Farmington reduced its food waste by 25-30%, conserved nearly 290,000 gallons of water, and saved $57,000 in resources. And at Virginia Tech, food waste was reduced by 29% during the second week of the study when meals were trayless.
Middlebury College in Vermont instituted an on-campus composting program in 1993. Today, 70% of the college's food waste is composted. Michigan State takes kitchen scraps and plate waste from many of its dining halls and uses worms to compost it. The university also runs waste from one particular cafeteria through a food pulper and then through an on-campus anaerobic digester to convert it to biogas that powers the digester and surrounding buildings. But even a less ambitious composting program (like collecting food waste and bringing it to your local composting facility) still diverts food waste from landfills.
The number of food insecure Americans reached an all time high of 49 million in 2009. With that in mind, students at the University of Maryland, College Park started the Food Recovery Network. On an entirely volunteer basis, the students collect edible food waste from campus cafeterias and donate it to area shelters and food banks. Since forming in 2011, FRN has expanded to include 7 affiliate chapters, including at Brown University, UC Berkeley, and Pomona College. To date, FRN has rescued 96,000 meals. To find out how to start an affiliate chapter at your college, contact FRN.
What You Can Do
- If you’re in college and your university does not compost or work to reduce food waste, contact your school officials and start a food waste campaign on your campus. EndFoodWasteNow.org will be putting together information on what you can do, so check back here regularly.
- If you’re a parent and your child is in school, find out if the school composts or works to reduce food waste.
 Jonathan Bloom, American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It), 1st Da Capo Press ed. (Cambridge, MA.: Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2010), 64.