California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) 

Child Nutrition/School Cafeterias

School district child nutrition managers are continually 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. Such efforts also support the district’s compliance with the state’s mandatory commercial recycling requirements.

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This webpage serves to educate school district child nutrition providers on how to reduce waste generation, practice pollution prevention, and conserve energy and other natural resources. Small changes to current operations can lead to large savings.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) acknowledge the special role K-12 schools have in not only reducing, recovering, and recycling food waste on their premises, but also in educating the next generation about recovering wholesome excess food for donation and about reducing food waste to conserve natural resources.

U.S. EPA food recovery hierarchy

U.S. EPA food recovery hierarchy
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The integrated waste management strategies provided below in the Reduce, Reuse, and Compost/Recycle sections are prioritized based on the US EPA food waste recovery hierarchy and are supported by the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle). The food recovery hierarchy prioritizes actions that organizations can take to prevent and divert wasted food. Each tier of the hierarchy focuses on different management strategies for your wasted food. The top levels are the best ways to prevent and divert wasted food because they create the most benefits for the environment, society and the economy. For additional information, see CalRecycle's Food Scrap Management Page.

The best place to start in reducing food waste is not to 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

Offer Versus Serve is a concept that applies to menu planning and the meal service. Offer Versus Serve allows students to decline some of the food offered in a reimbursable lunch or breakfast. 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. The goals of Offer Versus Serve are:

US--EPA's Reducing Food Waste Tips
& Resources for Schools
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  • to reduce food waste; and
  • to permit students to choose the foods they want to eat.

Due to the fact that students may choose fewer selections under Offer Versus Serve, guidance is provided on what constitutes a reimbursable lunch and breakfast.

Offer Versus Serve is a best practice for national school lunch and school breakfast programs according to California Department of Education’s Nutrition Services Division Management Bulletin entitled “Clarification Regarding the Use of ‘Sharing Tables’ and Recycled Milk in School Nutrition Programs.”

Case Studies

  • After implementing the Offer Versus Serve food program, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) cut down on food disposal costs and avoided excessive 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.
  • 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.

Zero-Waste Lunches
In most cases, lunchroom waste (e.g., food and food packaging) is a large component of a school district’s waste stream. By implementing a zero-waste lunch program, students, parents and caregivers, and teachers can work together to prepare lunches that reduce the amount of trash that is thrown away. With careful planning, little or no food waste should be created. Zero-waste lunches require a little extra thought when packing, but they create considerably less waste and reduce costs in the long run.

In fact, according to the US EPA, packing a waste-free lunch saves an average student $250 and 67 pounds of trash per nine-month school year.

Case Study

  • Zero-Waste Policy--Oak Hills Elementary School in Ventura County implemented a zero-waste policy, which decreased its waste by 90 percent. Additionally, Ventura County's Integrated Waste Management Division promotes zero-waste lunch by offering workshops for parents and students at school sites to explain the cost benefits and provide training to successfully implement a zero-waste program.

More Information

  • Waste-Free Lunches--This website provides information regarding how to implement or participate in a waste-free lunch program. This site includes sample letters to parents and teachers, information on conducting trash audits, examples of salvaged and recycled art projects, composting basics, where to purchase waste-free lunch kits, success stories from across North America, and links to other waste-free lunch sites.
  • US EPA developed a Waste-Free Lunch poster to help students learn how to reduce, reuse, and recycle items in their school lunches. The poster can be used to get students interested in zero-waste lunches and learn how to organize a Waste-Free Lunch Day.

Food Waste Dehydrators reduce the weight and volume of food waste, which can lead to reduced hauling and disposal costs. This webpage provides information that may be helpful when evaluating whether this type of technology is appropriate for your facility.

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Food waste is not only unfortunate in terms of lost opportunities to feed hungry students, but also because of its negative effects on our environment. Based on the 2014 waste characterization study, 50 percent of a school’s waste stream is organic material. 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. This is 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 would otherwise be disposed 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). The USDA stresses the importance of careful menu planning and production practices in the lunch and breakfast programs to reduce food waste and improve consumption of healthy foods. Even with careful planning, however, there can be excess food from time to time. The USDA strongly encourages schools to donate leftover foods to appropriate nonprofit institutions, provided state or local laws or regulations do not prohibit this practice. 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 donation has been a longstanding policy in all Child Nutrition Programs, as clarified in recent guidance from the Food and Nutrition Service.

California Department of Education’s (CDE) Guidance on the Donation of Leftover Food--In 2011, the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act 2012 (Public Law 112-55) amended the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (NSLA) by adding paragraph (1), the Food Donation Program. This amendment:

  • Provides statutory authority for Child Nutrition Programs (CNP) schools and agencies to have food recovery and food donation policies and clarifies that any food prepared for CNP schools but not consumed may be donated to “eligible local food banks or charitable organizations.”
  • Defines the terms “eligible local food banks or charitable organizations” to mean any food bank or charitable organization that is tax exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 [(26 U.S.C. 501(c)(3)].
  • Extends protections against civil and criminal liability for persons or organizations when making food donations to the extent provided under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, found in Section 22 of the Child Nutrition Act.

CDE also provides the best practice of clarification regarding the use of sharing tables:

  • “In an effort to reduce the amount of food waste and encourage the consumption of food served, many school food service operations have established "sharing tables." Sharing tables are carts and/or tables where children can place unconsumed food and beverage items (pre-packaged food and beverages, unopened wrapped food and beverages, or food items with a peel) that they choose not to eat/drink. These tables provide an opportunity for other children to take additional helpings of food or beverages at no cost to them. In many instances, food and beverage items, especially unopened milk, have been reused by food service operations as part of a reimbursable meal, served a la carte, and/or used in cooking.”

Case Study

Waste Not OC Coalition in Orange County is focused on meeting the nutritional needs of the community and protecting their environment by facilitating the donation and distribution of wholesome surplus food. The coalition has worked with multiple school districts and individual schools to facilitate working partnerships with local food banks and food rescue organizations.

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 can be a viable option for recycling food scraps and provides economic and environmental benefits for all involved.

Other Ideas for Reuse. Before recycling or disposing resources from food service areas, teachers should be informed about 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 five-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.

  • A partnership agreement formed in 2014 between the County of San Diego and the Ramona Unified School District was the first step in the creation of a model waste reduction and sustainability program. The first of its kind and scale in southern California, the program employs state and nationally accepted hierarchies for reducing food waste, and it includes source reduction methods, food donation, onsite composting and food scrap diversion to animal feed. “This is a fully closed-loop model we’d like to duplicate throughout the county,” says Michael Wonsidler, Program Coordinator, with the County of San Diego Department of Public Works, Solid Waste Planning & Recycling Section.

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, 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. View other links specific to vermicomposting from our school garden page.

  • To promote and educate preschool and K-12 students about nature's way of recycling and the lifecycle, ecosystems and organism interaction involved with vermicomposting, Santa Cruz County offers free worm bins for classroom and school gardens.

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.

  • How to Start a Beverage Container Recycling Program at School--Guidance on planning and implementing a school beverage container recycling program. Includes information on forming a team, setting program goals, making decisions about collection, transportation, and storage of recyclables, promoting the program, and monitoring and evaluating the program.

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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. The following are just a few considerations.

  • 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 there a less-perishable product that is available in bulk?
  • Are there recycled or other environmentally preferable products available?
  • Is the product recyclable or compostable?

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Additional Resources

Smarter Lunchrooms Movement
The mission of the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement is to equip school lunchrooms with evidence-based tools that improve child eating behaviors and thus improve the health of children. Smarter Lunchrooms demonstrate core values including:

  • Low-Cost and No-Cost Solutions
  • Lunchroom Environment Focus
  • Promotion of healthful eating behaviors
  • Sustainability

USDA Food and Nutrition Service | Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) Implementation Research Brief: Plate Waste (January 2016)--The findings presented in this research brief include an overview of school food service directors’ perceptions about plate waste as they transitioned their programs to meet the new meal patterns and nutrition requirements prompted by HHFKA. They also include a summary of the strategies that directors have used to overcome challenges and minimize plate waste while implementing the provisions in their school districts as well as recommendations for technical assistance.

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.

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 24, 2017
School Waste Reduction
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