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Challenges and potential for reducing wasted food

  • About one-third of food produced in the United States ends up in garbage bins. The energy, water and other resources used to produce, transport, and cook food is wasted when we waste food.
  • In schools, students place uneaten edible foods in garbage or compost bins at the end of each lunch period. An average school throws away 30 pounds of food each day while one in five children are food insecure.
  • Food waste in schools has been a problem for a long time, before federal nutrition standards for schools were updated in 2012 to make school meals healthier. See research external link indicating students are eating more of the healthier foods they are served after healthier standards were put into place.

We can reduce food waste in schools. See solutions below.

Food waste reduction campaign poster at Westwood Elementary School
Food waste reduction campaign at Westwood Elementary School


Effective educational strategies include classroom lessons, nutrition education, school educational campaigns encouraging students to eat the foods and beverages they select, pledge campaigns to reduce wasted food, school produce gardens that involve students, and sharing tips with parents and guardians on how to pack lunches their children will eat.

Student signing pledge to reduce food waste at school
Student signs pledge to reduce food waste

Menu revisions

Keep track of lunch menu options that students typically do not eat, and share that information with school or district food services. School nutrition or food services may be able to revise future menus within the federal nutrition guidelines.

Recess before lunch, Longer seated lunch periods

Studies show food waste per elementary school student decreased after recess was scheduled before lunch, and longer seated lunch periods in K-12 schools resulted in less food waste. Also, according to experts, when students eat more of the nutritious foods served at school, they experience improved physical health, emotional/social health, and cognitive function.

Milk dispensers

In schools with milk dispensers, students choose how much milk to take, resulting in less milk waste because students drink more of what they put in their cups compared to what they drink from milk cartons. Students report that milk tastes better from dispensers than from cartons – and that also leads to less milk waste.

After switching to milk dispensers, schools and districts have realized cost savings thanks to reduced garbage or recycling collection costs, lower energy costs, and milk waste reduction resulting in less milk purchased.

Share Tables

Share Tables in school cafeterias are designated spaces for students to place unopened, packaged foods and drinks and uneaten whole fruits with inedible skins from the school lunch program. Typical items placed on Share Tables include unopened milk cartons, yogurts, cheese sticks, packages of crackers, and apple sauce or fruit cups, and unpeeled oranges and bananas. Invite students who want more food to help themselves to Share Table items.

King County Green Schools Program provides assistance, recommendations based on successes in King County schools, crates and signs for Share Tables, and help educating students about what items can be placed on the Share Tables.

Important: Before setting up a food share table

  • Public schools must obtain approval from their school district Food or Nutrition Services. Ask King County Green Schools Program which school districts permit their schools to set up share tables.
  • Each public and private school should review this Public Health – Seattle & King County fact sheet Download PDF 200 K.
  • For public schools planning to set up a food share table: School districts must complete and submit a School Food Sharing Table request form Download PDF 475 K for each school.
  • For private schools planning to set up a food share table: Each school must complete and submit a School Food Sharing Table request form Download PDF 475 K.

See King County Green Schools Program Food Share and Donation Pilot – Lake Washington School District – final report June 2019 Download PDF 1.75 MB

Donation (also called Food Rescue or School Food Share)

Foods leftover on Share Tables can be donated to nonprofit organizations that will use the food to feed hungry people. Those nonprofit organizations also can pick up from school kitchens any foods and drinks that cannot be served at a future lunch.

To collect foods that have been served (such as in a school cafeteria), nonprofit organizations must receive a variance from King County Public Health. King County Green Schools Program connects schools and districts with nonprofit organizations that have received such a variance.

The program also provides hands-on assistance, recommendations based on successes in King County schools, crates to collect and store food, signs for the crates, and helpful resources.

Important: Before starting a donation program, ask King County Green Schools Program if your school district allows share tables and donation.

At the end of every school year and prior to other long school breaks, school district kitchens typically have edible foods such as produce, dairy products, baked goods, and other foods that would spoil or reach expiration dates before school resumes.

Unopened, packaged foods ready for donation
Unopened, packaged foods and drinks ready for donation


Foods not eaten or donated can be collected for composting at a regional composting facility. See Food Scrap Collection Steps to Success Download PDF 175 K.

King County Green Schools Program provides hands-on assistance, indoor containers to collect food scraps and other compostable materials, signs, educational tools, and help educating students and employees about what materials can be composted. It is important that plastics, metals, glass, and other non-compostable items be kept out of compost bins.

Some schools compost food scraps on their campuses. See resources below.

Contact Us

 Call: 206-477-4466

TTY Relay: 711

King County Solid Waste Division mission: Waste Prevention, Resource Recovery, Waste Disposal