Food waste in schools
The average school throws away or composts 30 pounds of food a day. When food is wasted all the energy, water, and natural resources used to produce, transport, and cook that food is also wasted. In the U.S. nearly 30% of edible food ends up in the garbage while 1 in 5 children are food insecure.
We can reduce food waste in schools. Check out these solutions for schools and visit Food: Too Good to Waste for more tips.
Food waste education
Help reduce food waste using these educational strategies and tools:
- Download our pledge to reduce food waste
- Read about Westwood Elementary school’s successful food waste reduction campaign
- View our tips for packing a waste-free lunch
- Read these food waste reduction articles for families
- Request King County’s hands-on Food for Thought classroom workshop for middle and high schools.
- Download our food systems and food waste reduction learning and activities guide.
- Watch this 9-minute video from University of California: Food waste is the world's dumbest problem
Use our daily tracking sheet to monitor uneaten menu options. Then summarize your findings using our project summary sheet. Share your insights with school or district food services staff who may be able to revise future menus within the federal nutrition guidelines.
Adjusting lunch periods
Studies show food waste in elementary schools decreased when recess was scheduled before lunch. Longer seated lunch periods in K-12 schools also resulted in less food waste.
- Summary of studies: recess before lunch
- Summary of studies: longer seated lunch period
Providing milk dispensers
Schools and districts that switched from milk cartons to milk dispensers experienced many benefits, including:
- An overall reduction in milk waste due to students choosing how much milk to take.
- Students report milk tastes better from dispensers, leading to less waste.
- Cost savings due to reduced garbage and recycling collection costs, and lower energy costs.
- Lower supply costs due to less milk purchased
Creating a food share table
Food share tables allow students to share their unopened, packaged foods and drinks and uneaten whole fruits with inedible skins from the school meal program. Invite students who want more food to help themselves to items placed on food share tables. Typical items placed on Food Share Tables include:
- Milk cartons, yogurts, and cheese sticks
- Packages of crackers
- Apple sauce or fruit cups
Our Green Schools Program provides guidance, signs, and other tools to help districts and schools set up and use food share tables.
Before setting up a food share table:
- Review this Public Health–Seattle & King County factsheet
- Public schools must obtain approval from their school district Food Services or Child Nutrition Services. You can ask the Green Schools Program if your school district allows food share tables. School districts must complete and submit a School Food Sharing Table request form for each school.
- Private schools must complete and submit a School Food Sharing Table request form.
- The Food Share Table request form requires the person in charge of the table to have an active food worker card. Visit our food worker card page to learn how to obtain a card.
The food share table needs daily monitoring to make sure students only place accepted items on the table. The person in charge sets up a volunteer schedule and students and volunteers help monitor. Volunteers don't need a food worker card if the person in charge has a card and trains them on food safety. That includes:
- Hand washing procedures
- Not allowing opened, half-eaten items, or foods from home lunches on the Food Share Table.
Donation or food rescue
Schools can donate leftover food from share tables to nonprofit organizations. School kitchens can also donate food and drinks that can’t be served at a future breakfast or lunch.
Nonprofits must receive a variance from King County Public Health to pick-up school food donations. The Green Schools Program can help connect schools and districts with approved nonprofits.
Use these resources to begin a food share or donation program:
- Read about Lake Washington School District’s successful pilot program
- Read about how school districts donate leftover food in King County
- View our How It Works process flow
- Read about food share program myths and facts
- Download the daily food donation tracking form
Organics collection and composting
Uneaten food that’s not donated can be collected for composting. The Green Schools Program provides guidance, indoor food scrap collection bins, signs, and educational tools to help you educate students and staff.
See Organics Management Law to learn how this Washington State law requires businesses to collect organics in a phased-in approach starting January 2024. Page 2 of the summary defines “businesses” to include public and nonprofit entities such as schools. Email GreenSchools@cplusc.com to ask for guidance to set up and maintain organics collection in your district or school.
Use these resources for help with collection of organics (food scraps and other compostable materials):
- Read our guide to successfully setting up school food scrap collection.
- Download this messaging to ask for parent volunteers
- Use these sample compost collection announcements
- Read these tips to reduce fruit flies
You can also explore these resources for setting up on-site composting:
- Visit our on-site composting page
- Read our 2003 pilot school and business on-site composting report
- Download the King County guide to building, setting up, and maintaining a worm bin for educational purposes
- Read about how Crestwood Elementary School and Waskowitz Outdoor School successfully use Earth Tubs