Reducing Food Waste at Scale through School Meal Programs

Food waste is one of the biggest problems impacting climate change today. Not only do the agricultural inputs that are required to produce food like water, energy, and fertilizers go to waste when food is discarded, but wasted food emits greenhouse gases in landfills. In developed countries like the US, it mainly comes at the end of the consumer chain – in households, stores, and distributors. Ex: Uneaten food that is thrown out at homes, stores, and restaurants; Food not meeting retailers’ standards for color and appearance. ReFED reports that “ households generate 30 million surplus food tons, or 37%, of all food waste in the US.” The upside of this statistic is that we as individuals and communities have the ability to make choices that will mitigate this issue. 

Reducing Food Waste at Home
Some of our favorite ways to decrease food waste at home include getting creative in the kitchen by utilizing “scrap” foods that are often discarded (how about some delicious carrot top green pesto?), and freezing or sharing food that you know you won’t eat. Another important aspect is understanding date labels. There are no federal standards regulating the date labels that appear on food and beverages (except for infant formula), so consumers often throw out food past their date while in reality, it is often perfectly fine to eat.

Reducing Food Waste at Scale – School Meal Programs
Our public school system has the opportunity to mitigate food waste at scale. Many districts have strong waste management practices that include things like “offer vs serve” and share tables, as well as increased scratch cooking when infrastructure allows. When students have the ability to choose what goes on their plates in the form of fruit stands or salad bars, it is more likely that that food will end up in bellies over trash cans. As more districts receive funding for staff training, and better infrastructure, the build out of kitchens allows for an increase in scratch cooking. Scratch cooked meals can be more appealing to students and allows for bulk purchasing and menu planning that reduces food waste. With over 7B meals served annually, our schools can make a significant impact.

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