- School cafeterias in the US produce nearly 530,000 tons of food waste every year.
- This could be costing as much as $1.7 billion per school year.
- Milk waste was analyzed separately: it could be as much as 45 million gallons every year.
Approximately 100,000 schools in the United States serve lunches to over 29 million students per day. In 2018, 4.8 billion free meals were served in school cafeterias as part of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). This only accounts for one school year (~180 days) and does not include the Summer Food Service Program or the School Breakfast Program.
NSLP was founded in 1946 and since then it has been providing meals to children in charter schools, public schools, and nonprofit private schools.
A few years ago, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) introduced its Food Waste Warrior (FWW) program to make students aware of the food loss and its environmental impacts, and reduce food wastage. In the spring of 2019, WWF examined food waste in 46 schools across 8 states.
They found school cafeterias in the US produce nearly 530,000 tons of food waste every year, which could be costing as much as $9.7 million per day or $1.7 billion per school year.
Milk waste was analyzed separately: it could be as much as 45 million gallons every year. On average, every single student from each of the 46 schools wastes 28.7 cartons of milk per year.
Instead of measuring the food waste in ‘back-of-house’ operations, they measured the plate waste (post-service) in the cafeteria. The results show that how food waste is managed varies greatly across the schools and districts.
Elementary schools produce more food waste compared to middle schools. On average, each student from elementary schools wastes 42.8 pounds of food every year, while each middle school student wastes 41.9 pounds of food per year.
Wasting food can no longer be accepted. In the United States, up to 40% of food is wasted, while more than 41 million people face hunger.
On a global scale, more people are reported to die from hunger every day than malaria, AIDs, and tuberculosis combined. About 33% of the organically and industrially produced food is lost or wasted due to one reason or the other. This also causes severe environmental damage (waste food produces greenhouse gases) and economical losses.
Is There A Solution?
The study indicates that by raising awareness through food waste reduction initiatives and student empowerment, schools can millions of dollars, which can be reinvested back into health programs to improve students’ nutrition and health.
During the 6-week audit program, simply measuring food and establishing cafeterias as a real-world learning environment for students was enough to reduce the food wastage by 3% between the first and last audit.
On average, participating elementary schools reduced food waste by 14.5%, while the full range of schools reduced milk waste by 12.4%.
The study presents several opportunities for reducing and repurposing food waste. It highlights recommendations for school administrators and policymakers. Moreover, the entire audit and data-collection techniques used throughout the project can be replicated and adapted in any school cafeteria.