Food Waste - OVS

Students retrieve their lunch at Yorkshire Elementary School in Manassas, Virginia. Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Food Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) serves about 30 million meals each day totaling to a roughly $13.6 billion a year. While the program serves to ensure that students are provided with the proper nutrition, there is a high percentage of uneaten and unopened foods that end up in landfills all across the country.

As a result of the USDA reimbursable meal requirements, students often end up with meal items that they will knowingly not consume. In turn, students end up tossing out perfectly edible food items and contributing to our nation’s food waste epidemic.

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimated that the US wastes a whopping 40% of food per year, equating to $165 billion yearly—the biggest culprits being individual consumers, restaurants and grocery stores. While public schools do not make the list, food waste is still a prevalent issue within the system. K-12 schools are responsible for about 1 to 2 percent of our national food waste percentage according to the NRDC’s Joanne Berkenkamp, Senior Advocate, Food & Agriculture Program.

You might think, 1 to 2 percent is not a huge impact, but let’s take a step back to focus solely on what that means for public schools and the NSLP. Food and food policy journalist, Lela Nargi, argues that “by one estimate, this translates to something like 26 percent of the NSLP-participating school’s food budget, or $1.2 billion per year worth of food thrown away in schools across the U.S.”

At this point, is it safe to say that $1.2 billion is in fact, impactful?

To combat some of the plate waste that has happened as a consequence of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, the Food and Nutrition Service added the Offer Versus Serve (OVS) provision to the NSLP. OVS is an optional opportunity to reduce waste for school food authorities by providing students the flexibility to decline items.

“Offer Versus Serve or OVS is a concept that applies to menu planning and the meal service. OVS allows students to decline some of the food offered in a reimbursable lunch or breakfast. The goals of OVS are to reduce food waste and to permit students to choose the foods they want to eat.” Offer Versus Serve, Guidance for the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, Food and Nutrition Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Food Waste - Milk Cartons

Served but not consumed school food in a dumpster. Photo by Nancy Deming.

Still, is this enough to help significantly reduce waste?

Several organizations and schools have independently taken matters into their own hands by providing different solutions to our very big and wasteful problem. Strategies such as share tables and composting have changed the way school cafeterias operate. Composting helps recycle the half-eaten meal items that aren’t able to be donated per food safety policies. On the other hand, share tables allow students to leave unwanted packaged foods and uneaten fruits for donation.

Depending on local and state health and food safety policies, share tables can also be used for students who want additional food servings or for those whose families are food insecure. While these strategies are available and can help reduce waste, schools and school districts are still slow to embrace them.

As stated in K-12 and Wasted Food: Innovations from the Heartland, “Share tables, where students can return items like milk or bananas that they haven’t opened, can be a great way for kids to leave behind or pick up extra food. However, current estimates suggest that only 1 percent of public schools in the U.S. have share tables in place.”

Food Waste

Nancy Deming and students sorting food into bins at Hoover Elementary in Oakland, California. Photo by Aaron Rosenblatt.

The Oakland Unified School District has been a major proponent of these strategies and have required all 40 of their schools to participate in these food waste reduction methods. You can attribute their success to Nancy Deming, the district’s first sustainability manager for custodial and nutritional services.

“With her help, the district has arguably done more than any other in the country to minimize excess food,

redistribute edible leftovers to people in need, and compost the inevitable inedibles,” explained American Wasteland author Johnathan Bloom.

Deming’s advocacy has helped push these initiatives district wide where as schools around the nation have struggled to adopt such methodologies. Local and state policies have hindered the promotion of these ideas only to discourage the movement and slow down the momentum. It is at this point where Deming could be the missing piece.

Schools and school districts nation wide can benefit from an advocate and supporter, like Deming, to help drive these programs forward. While it is understandable that time, money and resources are very real and very limited, the push to reduce food waste should be something to embrace and strive for.