5 Tips to Curb Food Waste in Your School Nutrition Program

Food waste has been a hot topic in school food service for quite some time now. Ever since the release and implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) in 2010, people have been sounding off on how the new regulations affect their district’s nutrition program.
In one camp, there are those who feel strongly that the amount of food that children toss out everyday has increased dramatically. Maybe you’re one of these. Most say they’ve seen it with their own eyes – kids throwing out perfectly good food because they have been forced to take something off the line they really had no intention of eating in the first place. What a travesty that is to throw out healthy, nutritious food!
Then, in the opposite corner of the ring, there are those who believe that food waste has actually been declining since the implementation of the HHFKA. A couple of studies, including this one released in 2015 Childhood Obesity, argue this point. One of the main proof points offers that since students are now given a choice between taking a required fruit or vegetable, more students are choosing fruit, thus reducing the amount of overall vegetable waste.
Regardless of which side of the aisle you’re on, we can all agree that the more we can do to reduce food waste, the better off our nutrition programs, our children, and our environment will be. Let’s get into some tips that you can implement in your nutrition operation that can help you reduce or repurpose your food waste.

Tip #1: Track Your Inventory through Software

One of the best ways to reduce food waste is to reduce preventable food waste. Unfortunately, far too many school nutrition programs have to throw away food because they failed to use it before it spoiled or expired.
Thankfully, utilizing a proper inventory management solution can help each school site use every item that comes into their facility. Automating your district’s inventory management allows the FIFO (first-in, first-out) principle to be easily put into practice at all site locations.
In addition, as the district nutrition director, you have increased visibility into exactly what each site has on shelves at any point in time. You can also view their incoming orders, so it will be easy to tell if one site is consistently over-ordering for their kitchen, and thus increasing the amount of food they waste.

Tip #2: Accurate Production Planning

Piggyback off of utilizing an automated inventory management software. Ensure that sites within your district are accurately planning the amount of food to prepare for each school day to help reduce food waste.
Accurate production planning will lead to less leftovers overall. With leftovers that inevitably occur, a production planning system automatically adds them to the next possible serving day. This should help more food move out of the kitchen and onto the serving line.

Tip #3: Educate Children about Food Benefits

Food waste is not just a problem in schools – it’s a problem nationwide. This MSNBC article claims that in this country, we toss out 40% of all edible food! That’s staggeringly awful and inexcusable. As educators, we are on the front line and have the power to help change that statistic.
Begin a program in your district to educate children about their school lunch food. Simple lessons on how to eat produce, which parts are edible, and which parts can be used in cooking other menu items could go a long way in encouraging children to eat foods they would have otherwise trashed.

Tip #4: Compost the Waste

No matter how much you try to reduce food waste in your schools, children will inevitably still throw away some food. To make the best out of a bad situation, begin a composting program at schools throughout your district.

Stations can be set up in the cafeterias like the one shown in the image above. With just a simple introductory lesson, students learn how to use the composting stations. By composting food that would have otherwise been thrown away, your schools can make their own hearty top soil to use on school grounds in the flower beds, to nourish newly-planted trees, or to start their own student-run gardening program.

Tip #5: Partner with Local Farmers and Ranchers

Another unique option to use the daily school-food waste is to create a mutually beneficial partnership between a school site and a local rancher or farmer. This article details a school to ranch partnership formed in Rio Rancho, New Mexico.
School locations could donate their raw food waste (things like produce and vegetable trimmings) to local ranchers to feed their animals, such as goats and pigs. Depending on the type of farm or ranch the partnership is with, the farm may be able to give some fresh-grown crops in-kind or at a significant discount to the school. The school receives fresh, healthy produce at a reduced cost, and the farmer saves money when feeding his animals. WIN WIN! J Not only are you effectively recycling your school lunches, but you helping to make your school district environmentally conscious! Kudos to you for helping Mother Nature!
Whatever approach to managing food waste you feel is best for your district, there are plenty of resources out there to help you get started. A quick Google search can supply you with an endless treasure trove of recommendations and case studies of those districts that have successfully implemented innovative waste-management solutions.