What You'll Learn
What causes food waste and strategies to waste less
What You'll Do
Find ways to reduce food waste at your school, share or give away unused food, and recycle food that can't be donated.
Why This Play
Did you know that between 30% and 40% of food in the United States goes uneaten each year? Taking only what you will eat in appropriate portion sizes to promote health and well-being is an easy opportunity to combat food waste. Paying attention to reducing food waste benefits the environment because less waste is going into landfills. It also helps us to better appreciate the resources (water, energy, land, etc.) that go into getting food onto our plates, all while making a positive difference in the lives of people, animals and the environment.
Warm Up Activity Idea!
Not quite ready for the full Play? Try this.
- Create a food-waste reduction committee to anecdotally measure how much food is being wasted in your school. A visual assessment — all, 3/4, 1/2, 1/4, or no food wasted —from each student's meal will give you an idea of how much food is being thrown out.
- Use your results to help set goals for this Play.
What to Do
There are three parts to this Play: reduce, recover and recycle. You’ll plan strategies for all three as you follow the three steps.
⚠️ Note: In any Play where you plan to work with school meals or à la carte offerings, you must involve the school nutrition director and other professionals! If that’s not you, be sure to contact that team before you get started.
Step 1: Reduce
After you’ve involved the student body (see Build Interest) and everyone is on board to reduce food waste at your school, the first step toward success is to identify opportunities to waste less.
- Poll students to find out why they throw away food. Do they not like it? Was the portion size too big? Did they run out of time to eat? Understanding why food is wasted will help you choose the right strategies to make your Play a success!
- Start small — even small changes conserve resources and can help schools save money on food purchasing and disposal costs. And remember, food is only nutritious if it is eaten! Here are some ideas to help reduce food waste before it happens:
- Plan a “Trashless Tuesday” or “Waste-Free Wednesday” to introduce students to the environmental benefits of reducing food waste.
- Ensure weekly menus are clearly posted in classrooms and cafeterias to help students decide what to eat each day.
- Remind students of the next day’s menu choices during afternoon announcements.
- In high schools, especially ones with open campuses, provide a grab-and-go option for lunch so students can get a nutritious meal before they leave or if they’re eating somewhere other than the cafeteria.
- Ask teachers or other school nutrition professionals who engage with students during lunch to encourage them to finish their meals, including drinking their milk.
Step 2: Recover
Food recovery is the organized collection and donation of excess food to those in need. There are two options for this step. Consider doing both to have the biggest impact!
- 1st option: Set up a sharing table where students can give or take individual items that would otherwise be thrown out.
- Establish a list of food items that are safe to share — unopened milk stored at the right temperature, packaged foods and fruit with peels.
- Work with student volunteers to monitor the table and ensure only approved items are shared.
- Work with your school nutrition professionals to follow these USDA safety requirements and other best practices, including making sure you have coolers or ice buckets if you are going to include unopened milk or other perishable items that need to stay cold on your sharing table. Consider applying for funds to get the equipment you may need.
- ⚠️ Note: In addition to reviewing the USDA requirements, be sure to check with your school nutrition professionals about any other regulations that should be followed.
- 2nd option: Locate the nearest food bank in your area. Contact a representative to see if they have a method for collecting usable but uneaten foods and beverages, and whether your school might be a candidate for donating uneaten foods at the end of each week or month. Note that your school may not have “enough” uneaten foods to do this activity, but check it out to be sure.
- If the food bank has such a program, and if your school has enough to donate:
- Set up a volunteer group of students to work with the school nutrition team to collect foods that can be recovered from the meals program to donate. These can be foods from the sharing table or larger portions of foods in the kitchen that have not been used and may qualify as safe donations.
- Work with the representative on a pick-up or delivery plan and work with school nutrition to work out a reasonable schedule.
- If the food bank doesn't have such a program, consider working with the representative, your school nutrition professionals, and the school's parent-teacher organization to start a program.
- Give the food bank this set of recipe cards to print out and offer to their clients.
- ⚠️ Note: Another option for what to do with recovered food is to consider doing the Fight Hunger — Nourish Your Community Play and setting up an in-school food pantry for a backpack program.
Step 3: Recycle
Recycling food that cannot be donated is a wonderful way to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve soil health. Food contains energy and nutrients that are useful not only for feeding people, but also for feeding animals and plants. By recycling uneaten food, you can preserve the resources that would otherwise be wasted and put them to their next best use. There are several ways you can choose to make a difference in this area.
- Food scraps can be used to feed cows, pigs and other livestock or even to sustainably generate electricity. Note: Check with your local health department to see if this is an option in your area.
- Composting food scraps and inedible foods or breaking them down to create a nutrient-dense plant food can be done in your school’s garden, at a community garden, at a commercial composting facility and even indoors!
- You’ll need separate collection bins, compostable bin liners and garden or rubber gloves. Make sure to clearly label all of the bins.
- Collect discarded fruits and veggies to feed plants in your school’s garden or find a community garden that could benefit.
Ask your science teachers about different methods of composting, such as vermicomposting.
Who Can Help?
You are not in this alone. There are many people who can help make this Play a success. For this Play, you’ll definitely need the help of your school nutrition professionals. Meet with them first to talk about the goals of the Play and what seems most “doable” in your school. Here’s a list of who can help and some specific ways they can do that.
School Nutrition Professionals
- Help identify food waste and its causes
- Assist with reduction, recovery and recycling efforts
- Help you navigate any regulations or food safety requirements as you implement strategies
- Approve your plan
- Engage with school nutrition staff, teachers and custodians to get their support
- Encourage student participation
- Participate in food waste audits, food recovery efforts and other activities
- Encourage student participation
- Assist with food audits, food recovery efforts and recycling
- Encourage peers to participate
- Volunteer to help with food audits, food recovery efforts and recycling
- Encourage their students and other families to participate
School Transportation Personnel
- Possible assistance in food recovery efforts (transporting recovered foods to local food pantries)
- Use this Food Waste Play Roster to find out more about how outside organizations can help
As with any game that’s worth playing and winning, you are bound to run into challenges. That's why getting help from others is so important. You’ll be more likely to achieve your goals when everyone works together.
Recruit team members to join a food-waste reduction committee that includes your principal, school nutrition professionals and students, as well as parent and teacher volunteers. Meet to discuss the different strategies your school can try and who you might need to get permissions from for each strategy.
The bottom line: Food is too good to waste. Waste often means the wasted food goes to a landfill, where it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, which are bad for the planet.
Launch an awareness campaign to talk about the importance of reducing food waste and share details on why it is important for the environment.
- Continually remind everyone that nutrition isn’t nutrition unless it gets eaten!
- Have your student team keep their classmates up to date and announce successes during morning announcements.
- They can make posters that display the Play’s goals and mark each goal off as it is completed so the entire student body is aware of the school’s accomplishments.
Collaborate with your food-waste reduction committee to identify strategies that will work best in your school.
- Set incremental goals for each strategy — even small successes are worth celebrating!
- Encourage teachers in health, P.E., and general science classes to use the Undeniably Dairy lesson plan Creating My Plate and the accompanying video to help teach students what it means to compose healthy, balanced meals and how to reduce food waste in the process.
Create posters and morning announcements highlighting your program and the important role students can play in reducing food waste.
- Include the benefits of feeding more people, animals and land with food that would have otherwise been wasted.
- Be sure to mention how addressing food waste reduces greenhouse gas emissions and conserves resources used in producing food.
- Use the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy to educate students, staff and parents on the importance of different strategies and how they should be prioritized.
Send information home to parents or attend a PTA or PTO meeting to explain your Play.
This section features ideas on ways to involve everyone in your school and community. Think about ideas for differentiating between older and younger students and ways to bring in the family connection.
Build student leadership opportunities. As much as possible, have students do the planning and run your programs.
- Considering composting. Include the custodial staff and contact your county agricultural extension office to ask about local farmers who would be willing to accept food scrap donations.
- Look into the possibility of students earning service learning hours.
- Set up one subcommittee for each food waste strategy: reduction, recovery and recycling. Have students work together to create a strategy for improvement in their area. Help put students in contact with adults who can assist them.
- Have each committee ask questions like these and then come up with strategies to try to answer them:
- Reduction: How do we make sure students only take what they plan to eat? Think awareness campaigns, portion control, help from cafeteria supervisors and servers and other ideas.
- Recovery: How do we make use of the food waste that can be saved? Think sharing tables, backpack or food donation programs for the Nourish Your Community Play, and other ideas.
- Recycling: What can we do to make use of food scraps and other food waste? Think providing compost for the school garden or local farms, feed for local dairy farms, and other ideas.
Put students in the driver’s seat as much as possible. They’ll learn valuable life lessons on how to plan and implement programs, and they’ll feel great about helping their school!
- Measure your waste — even for just one day — of everything you throw away.
- Involve everyone in your household when planning meals — including school lunches — and shop accordingly.
- Take your leftovers home with you when you dine out. If you don’t think you’ll eat them in time, incorporate them into other meals.
- Ask for half portions or shared plates when dining out.
- Talk to parents, students, teachers and other school adults about food waste and share strategies that you’ve tried, either at home or at school.
For Parents or Caregivers
Have students share their experiences in helping their families make changes at home that help with reduction.
Help Build the Whole Fuel Up to Play 60 Community
Encourage students to download the FUTP 60 Student Zone app for challenges and activities.
Homefield Advantage: Check out this resource and share it with parents and caretakers so they can see what they can do to help at home and at school.
- Waste Less Cafeteria Checklist (PDF)
- World Wildlife Fund: Food Waste Warrior Toolkit
- USDA: What You Can do to Help Prevent Wasted Food
- US EPA: A Guide to Conducting Student Food Waste Audits - A Resource for Schools
- Undeniably Dairy: Creating My Plate Lesson Plan
- US EPA: Sustainable Management of Food