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Reducing food waste in schools

Learn about food waste in schools and strategies for making an impact.

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.

Learn more facts about school food waste in King County.

We can reduce food waste in schools. Check out these solutions for schools and visit Food: Too Good to Waste for more tips.

See Food Services Sustainability Roadmap prepared for Lake Washington School District in 2023 by Greenlink Education, funded by a Washington State Department of Ecology Local Solid Waste Financial Assistance Grant to the cities of Kirkland and Redmond. The roadmap includes King County Green Schools Program data, materials, and successes.

Food waste education

Help reduce food waste using these educational strategies and tools:

Menu revisions

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.

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

Read about milk dispenser studies done in Clackamas County schools and the Auburn School District.

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:

  • Oranges
  • Bananas
  • 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:

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:

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 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):

You can also explore these resources for setting up on-site composting: