California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle)

Child Nutrition/School Cafeterias

School district child nutrition managers are constantly looking for new and better ways to meet the nutritional needs of their students while also cutting costs and minimizing overhead expenses. One way a school district’s child nutrition department can increase overall efficiency and save money is through improved integrated waste management practices.


This section of the site is designed to help school district child nutrition providers reduce waste generation, practice pollution prevention, and conserve energy and other natural resources. Small changes to current operations can lead to large savings.

The Davis Joint Unified School District, as an example, realized a net savings of $4,695 in the 2000/2001 school year by implementing "offer versus serve" in three schools, separating organic food scraps from the cafeteria for vermicomposting, and by using recyclable trays. Think of the possibilities if all the schools in the district implemented these programs. For more program details, see the Davis Joint Unified School District case study and other food scrap reduction case studies.

The food waste management strategies provided below in the Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle sections, are prioritized based on the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA)  food waste recovery hierarchy and are supported by the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle). More information is provided on CalRecycle's Food Scrap Management Page.

U.S. EPA food recovery hierarchy

U.S. EPA food recovery hierarchy
(Select image to view larger version.)

In Waste Not, Want Not: Feeding the Hungry and Reducing Solid Waste through Food Recovery (PDF, 1.4 MB) both the U.S. EPA and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommend following the food recovery hierarchy as the preferred options to make the most of excess food. The food waste recovery hierarchy comprises the following activities from the top: Source Reduction, Feed People, Feed Animals, Industrial Uses, Composting, and Landfill/Incineration, as the last, and least preferred option.

The U.S. EPA also has tools and resources on food waste management, including a cost calculator that estimates the cost competitiveness of alternatives to food waste disposal. By measuring the amount of both pre- and postconsumer food waste, school districts can inventory food trim and scraps they are generating and then implement source reduction practices to save money and reduce waste.

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The best place to start in reducing food waste is to not create it in the first place. This is also called Source Reduction. School district kitchens and cafeterias can minimize disposal and procurement costs by implementing simple waste prevention procedures. Consider the following waste prevention strategies when developing a waste reduction program for your school district’s child nutrition operations.

Offer Versus Serve allows students to decline some of the food offered in a school lunch or breakfast program while still meeting federal nutritional standards. This strategy reduces food waste by not making students take food that they don’t like or won’t eat.

Zero-Waste Lunches avoid waste generation by eliminating packaging that creates waste. With careful planning, little or no food waste should be created.  Zero-waste lunches require a little extra thought when packing, but create considerably less waste and reduce costs in the long run.

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Food waste is not only unfortunate in terms of lost opportunities to feed hungry students but also its negative effects on our environment. Californians throw away nearly 6 million tons of food scraps each year and the nation spends an estimated $1 billion per year to dispose of excess food; a waste of both food and money.

The food waste reduction hierarchy, (1) feed people (2) feed animals (3) recycle and (4) compost, shows how productive use can be made of excess food that currently contributes to leachate and methane formation in landfills. The following food waste reduction strategies outline how school districts can reduce solid waste by facilitating the donation of wholesome surplus food.

Food Donation (also called Food Recovery). School cafeterias generally have leftover food in spite of the most careful planning. Excess edible food that has not been served or is packaged can easily be used to feed hungry people. Schools are a natural choice for such food recovery efforts since child nutrition managers have the expertise to handle and store recovered food until it can be delivered safely to organizations that serve the needy. Food recovery can make a significant contribution towards reducing hunger in the local community as well as save the school district money in avoided disposal costs.

Animal Feed. Leftover food not suitable for human consumption can be used to feed animals or given to companies that convert food discards into commercial animal feed and pet food. Feeding waste food to livestock or having the food processed into animal feed is a viable option for recycling food scraps and provides economic and environmental benefits for all involved. For more information, see US EPA's Animal Feed page. Also, you can contact the California Department of Food and Agriculture for more information on its Safe Animal Feed Education (SAFE) program.

Other Ideas for Reuse. Before recycling or disposing resources from food service areas, teachers should be informed on surplus materials that can potentially be used as supplies for classroom curriculum, school events, play productions, and other creative uses. For example, some food service items, such as egg cartons, milk cartons and jugs, steel cans, cardboard boxes, and more are popular components of student art and science projects. Additionally, reusable food service items, such as 5-gallon buckets, can also be used in other areas of the school, such as the school garden. School staff may also request, purchase or donate reusable items in material exchange programs such as those listed in CalRecycle’s School Supplies Reuse page.

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The child nutrition area generates many materials that can be recycled. Recycling includes the collection of recyclables, and the transport of the materials for processing. Recyclable food service commodities often include corrugated cardboard, aluminum and tin cans, glass containers, and some plastics. In addition to potential gains from avoided disposal costs, recycling may also result in additional revenue for the school.

Composting inedible food scraps from a food preparation or dining area, except meat and dairy products, can be done on site or taken to a composting facility that is permitted to accept food scraps. Composting yields a rich soil amendment that can be used in gardens and landscaping and saves money usually spent on soil conditioners and fertilizers. In addition, composting programs complement school garden program efforts, (both of which serve well as supplements and support to classroom instruction).

  • For example, St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco is separating out its preconsumer and postconsumer food waste along with paper towels, biodegradable utensils, and yard waste for off-site composting. For additional details, see the City of San Francisco Recycling Program and other food scrap reduction case studies.

Recycling. It is important to find out what recycling opportunities exist for your school district by checking with your city or county recycling coordinator, refuse hauler, and local recycling companies. Earth 911 also provides information on local recycling, pollution prevention, and environmental information in the United States and Canada; and certain organizations such as the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) and the Carton Council provide tools to help make your recycling program a success.

Rendering. Rendering companies will take fats, meat, bones, grease, and oils from a school or business and convert them into animal food, cosmetic, soap and other products. These companies may be located by looking in your local phone directory under Rendering or Tallow Companies. Additionally, the California Fats, Oils, and Grease Work Group (CalFOG) maintains a list of rendering companies throughout the state.

Vermicomposting is the practice of using worms to transform non-meat or non-dairy food scraps into a nutrient-rich finished product called vermicompost. In a school setting, a vermicomposting system can set the stage for a variety of interdisciplinary activities that can utilize school cafeteria waste for the worm bin, provide a variety of interesting experiments, and can culminate in a school or classroom garden using the finished product. A CalRecycle publication, The Worm Guide: A Vermicomposting Guide for Teachers, (PDF, 193 KB) helps the reader start a vermicomposting system and provides references for curricula materials. While the information presented is written with teachers and school staff in mind as the primary audience, the vermicomposting methods presented have broad applicability to institutions, offices, and homes. Additionally, CalRecycle has an interactive game that teaches 8 to 10-year-olds about waste management concepts by following Vermi the Worm through the school garden. View other links specific to vermicomposting from our school garden page.

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Purchasing Considerations

Many items we purchase will eventually be discarded. The amount of packaging we buy, whether toxic, reusable, recyclable, compostable, or made of recycled content, all depends on decisions made when we purchase the item. There are several waste reduction considerations to take into account when purchasing food service items for schools; below are just a few.

  • Can reusable items be purchased instead of disposable ones?
  • Is there an option with less packaging?
  • Will some of this product spoil before it is all used?
  • Is this a less-perishable product that is available in bulk?
  • Are there recycled or other environmentally preferable products available?
  • Is the product recyclable or compostable?


Food Diversion at Schools. Presents options and methods for preventing, reusing, and composting food waste in schools. Lists online resources and publications available from CalRecycle.

Food for Thought: Restaurant Guide to Waste Reduction and Recycling. Overview of waste management practices for the restaurant industry.

Food Service Waste Reduction Tips and Ideas. Information on proper purchasing, handling, preparation, and storage and other general information to assist cafeteria staff in reducing waste and saving  money.

The U.S. EPA recently published a series of Environmentally Preferable Purchasing guides, one focusing solely on the food service industry.

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School Nutrition Association (formerly American School Food Service Association) provides a very informative web site that includes a host of information ranging from current national news in child nutrition, to an expansive resource center with downloadable publications.

Berkeley Unified School District’s food policy includes ideas to maximize the reduction of waste by recycling, reusing, composting, and purchasing recycled products.

University of California, Santa Cruz's Residential Dining Services is designed to reduce the campus’ contribution to landfill waste and reduce future meal costs.

School Waste Reduction Home

Last updated: February 11, 2015
School Waste Reduction
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