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.

Food Waste poster

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This webpage serves to educate school district school nutrition directors on strategies to reduce waste, which can also result in decreased economic and harmful environmental costs to the district.

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 sustainable materials 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.


U.S. EPA's Reducing Food Waste Tips & Resources for Schools
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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.

Zero-Waste Lunches
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. Information regarding how to implement or participate in a waste-free lunch program can be found by visiting Zero-waste lunches may 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.

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


Food Donation (also called Food Recovery). The USDA stresses the importance of careful menu planning and production practices 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 food recovery organizations. 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 CNPs, as clarified in guidance from the Food and Nutrition Service.

In addition to providing guidance on reducing plate waste in CNPs noted above, CDE has specific guidance on the use of share tables and donation of leftover food.

  • The Use of Share Tables. This management bulletin provides guidance regarding the use of share tables in CNPs and includes updated information from Senate Bill 557 signed into law and effective January 1, 2018.
  • Guidance on Donation of Leftover Food in CNPs. This management bulletin provides guidance from USDA Food and Nutrition Service regarding the donation of leftover food in CNPs. Guidance for state donation requirements have been revised to include updated information from Senate Bill 557 signed into law and effective January 1, 2018.
  • California Department of Education (CDE). The CDE provides information on minimizing plate waste including successful strategies, best practices, and related resources.

Some school districts also offer specific guidance, policy and programs related to school food donation.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

K-12 School Food Recovery Roadmap.

K-12 School Food Recovery Roadmap
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School Waste Reduction Home