California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle)

Offer Versus Serve

Offer Versus Serve is an option within the national school lunch and breakfast programs and is administered by the United States Department of Agriculture. Under the Offer Versus Serve provision, students may decline up to two of the five required food items offered in the reimbursable lunch, and one of the four required food items offered in the reimbursable breakfast [1]. While voluntary in the elementary and middle schools, high schools must provide the Offer Versus Serve method to their students.

By offering food choices, students are more likely to eat the food items selected rather than throw them away. As a result, Offer Versus Serve can save school districts money through avoided purchasing and disposal costs.



  • Students get the nutrients they need for success in the classroom.
  • Students take less time in the school breakfast or lunch line.
  • Less food is thrown away.
  • Janitorial staff have less cleanup.
  • School systems can save money.

Child Nutrition Staff

  • More choices can be offered on the school menu.
  • School cafeteria staff may be able to make less food.
  • Fewer students may bring their lunch, so more kids eat school meals.
  • Child Nutrition has less food and packaging waste to get rid of.
  • Schools can conserve resources—food, money and energy.


  • Students take less time in the school breakfast or lunch line.
  • Teachers do not have to monitor what students take.
  • The cafeteria can be used as a learning laboratory.
  • Students can practice nutrition lessons learned in the classroom.
  • Students can learn about ways to save resources and the environment.


  • Cost savings keep school meal prices low.
  • Families can take greater advantage of school breakfast and lunch.
  • Families can teach children about food and nutrition by using the menu.
  • Families save time by not having to pack lunches.
  • Children build life skills in choosing what foods they will eat.


  • Students have the chance to try new foods.
  • Students eat more fruits and veggies because they pick what they like.
  • Students get the nutrients they need because they eat foods they pick.
  • Students have more time to eat because it takes less time in line.
  • Students can learn about eating smart and the environment.

The above information was developed by the Nutrition Education and Training Program, Nutrition Services Branch, Division of Public Health, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services with funding from Child Nutrition Services, N.C. Department of Public Instruction. Additional information can be found in Students Succeed with School Meals: "Offer versus Serve." (PDF, 288 KB)

Factors for Successful Implementation

  1. Obtain school board and/or district approval before implementation of the Offer Versus Serve program.
  2. Contact the California Department of Education, Nutrition Services Division to get specific guidelines for implementation of the Offer Versus Serve program.
  3. Educate school personnel, management, students and parents who will aid in program implementation. Utilize activities and approaches such as classroom presentations, posters, and letters to parents. See Other Helpful Resources below for training materials.
  4. Integrate the program into outcome-based education for students. For example, involve the students in weighing garbage before the program begins and after it gets started. Track progress in reducing waste. Present findings to other students that are not directly involved in weighing the food waste.
  5. Ask for feedback from staff, students and parents regarding the program and make adjustments as needed.
  6. Communicate waste reduction efforts and successes to your local government contact.
  7. Communicate any waste reduction, costs savings and student/parent feedback to your school administrators.

Case Studies

  1. After implementing Offer Versus Serve food program, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) cut down on food disposal costs and avoided food purchasing which saved the district more than $600,000 annually. Additionally, with the Offer Versus Serve program, LAUSD prevented the creation of 13,000 tons of food waste in 2006 alone.
  2. Davis Joint Unified School District realized a net savings of $4,695 in one year by implementing Offer Versus Serve in three schools, separating organic food scraps from the cafeteria for vermicomposting, and using recyclable trays. For more program details, see the Davis Joint Unified School District Case Study and other Food Scrap Reduction Case Studies.
  3. After implementing Offer Versus Serve, cafeteria food waste from three Portland, Oregon, pilot schools was reduced by as much as 36 percent--that's 1.5 tons of food no longer thrown out to the landfill each school year. Additionally, these schools realized significant savings in the average cost per meal by as much as 14 cents; in a school program of 500 children--a savings of $70 per day or about $1,400 per month For more information, see Offer Versus Serve and Food Choices in Elementary School Cafeterias; Waste Prevention Pilot Projects at North Plains Elementary School, Charles F. Tigard Elementary School and Metzger Elementary School Report (PDF, 618 KB).

California Specific Resources

The Nutrition Services Division (NSD) within the California Department of Education administers the USDA Child Nutrition Program in California.

Nutrition Services Division
California Department of Education
1430 N Street
Sacramento, CA 95814
Phone: 916-445-0850/800-952-5609
Fax: 916-445-4842

The California Department of Education web site features a comparison of school menu planning options for lunch.

Other Helpful Resources

  • School Lunch Program, Cafeteria Managers' Views on Food Wasted by Students (PDF, 591 KB)--A 44-page report from the U.S. General Accounting Office which reports that 42 percent of all cooked vegetables and 30 percent of all raw vegetables and salads are wasted. Of more than 2,000 cafeteria managers who responded, eighty percent felt the Offer Versus Serve program is an effective way to reduce food waste.


[1] United States Department of Agriculture; Food and Nutrition Service, Meal Pattern Requirements and Offer Versus Serve Manual. August 1990.

Child Nutrition Home

Last updated: August 26, 2015
School Waste Reduction
Contact: (916) 341-6199 or