Schools are experiencing an increase in food waste from school lunches
As more students utilize the National School Lunch Program, more food ends up in trash cans.
May 29, 2023
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) has helped enormously to prevent hunger for kids with food insecurity. But in recent years, students and teachers are starting to notice some flaws in the program. Every day, hundreds of kids receive school lunch, but garbage cans can be found littered with tons of uneaten food after lunchtime. According to an article by Penn State, plate waste in United States cafeterias range from 27% to 53%. But what is causing this food waste problem, and how do we combat it?
What is it?
The National School Lunch Program is a federal program created by Congress and signed by President Harry Truman in 1946 under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act. The program operates in both public and private schools and works to provide nutritionally balanced meals for students. At the federal level, the NSLP is administered by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service, but at the state level, state agencies work with schools to administer the program.
Since its implementation, millions of children have participated in the NSLP. Before the pandemic, 26.9 million students were being served school lunch each day, according to the School Nutrition Association. In 2020, 3.2 billion meals were served, of which 76.9% were served for free or at reduced prices.
Initially, the program focused on providing meals to students with food insecurity by providing free or reduced-price meals for those who qualified through Federal Assistance Programs. Students who didn’t qualify for these programs would have to pay for lunch. Most schools nationwide still operate under this system; however, in the 2022 to 2023 school year, California became the first state to implement a universal feeding program that provides all students free lunches.
“We can now feed every child free of charge in the state of California, as long as they receive a compliant meal,” Sandra Kennedy Jonaidi, Food Service Director for the Sequoia Union School District, said.
Over 34 million people face food insecurity in the United States, according to Feeding America. This includes nine million kids, which equates to one in every eight children. This number increased drastically during the COVID-19 pandemic when unemployment rates rose. The goal of the NSLP is to help those living in poverty and ensure every student can receive nutritious meals. This goal is outlined in their mission statement on their website.
“Our mission is to increase food security and reduce hunger in partnership with cooperating organizations by providing children and low-income people access to food, a healthy diet and nutrition education in a manner that supports American agriculture and inspires public confidence,” their mission statement states.
How is it funded?
The USDA finances the cost of meals under this program. Participating schools receive cash subsidies for reimbursable meals as long as the meals meet the nutritional requirements set forth by the federal government.
The NSLP requires that each meal consists of five components: fruits, vegetables, grains, meats or meat alternatives, and fluid milk. If a student takes all necessary components, their meal can be reimbursed. However, the school must pay a la carte charges for that meal if not all components are taken.
“If let’s say, you go up to lunch and you want to have a slice of pizza on Friday if you want a slice of pizza, and you don’t want to take the required fruit or vegetable with that, then there is a charge for it because it’s an a la carte item,” Jonaidi said.
The USDA encourages schools to provide options for different entrees that students can choose from, as well as various types of fruits and vegetables, chocolate, and regular milk. This is with the hope that with more options, there is more likely to be something for everyone, which can help reduce food waste and ensure everyone takes a reimbursable meal.
In California, more students have begun utilizing this program since lunch became free for all students, despite their financial status.
“The system and how the meals are paid for has changed and therefore, we’ve seen an increase in the number of meals being served,” Jonaidi said.
Offer Versus Serve program
Most elementary and middle schools operate under a system that requires students to take all components of a reimbursable meal, meaning they must take a vegetable, fruit, milk, and an entree for their meal to be reimbursed by the NSLP. A different type of system exists in high schools.
High schools use an Offer Versus Serve (OVS) system, which was implemented in the 2015 to 2016 school year. Essentially, the OVS program gives students more choices by allowing them to decline certain foods while still allowing the meal to be reimbursable.
OVS still requires schools to offer the five food components of a nutritious meal (fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, and milk); however, students are only required to take three of these food components, with at least one being half a cup of a fruit or vegetable, for their meals to be reimbursable.
As stated in the OVS guidelines, the goal of this system is to “reduce food waste and to permit students to choose the foods they want to eat.”
Despite the overall benefits of the National School Lunch Program, one problem that has become prominent in many schools in the Bay Area is food waste. The food requirements outlined in the NSLP force kids to take unwanted food, inevitably causing that food to end up in the trash.
Staff members strive to combat the food waste problem by looking at the consumption rates of foods and changing the menu to consist of more popular meals. But while this helps the problem, it does not solve it.
The goal of the NSLP is to ensure that all students consume nutritious meals from all the major food groups. But even if you require a student to take food, if they don’t want to eat it, they won’t.
Food waste is most applicable to vegetables. On any given day at Carlmont, you can find trash cans full of uneaten carrot packets, unopened milk, and uneaten entrees. By looking in just some of the trash cans throughout the campus, we found almost 90 wasted entrees and sides over three days.
“It’s always a problem recently. They should have the option to choose if they want carrots or not, but the kitchen has to give it to them,” Jerome Clarke, Plant Manager for Carlmont High School, said.
School lunch officials recognize this problem and constantly seek new ways to combat food waste. Some schools, such as Fox Elementary School, utilize food share tables to reduce waste. With this system, kids can place unwanted food on the table, where other kids can come and take it. But this method doesn’t eliminate food waste; at the end of the day, lots of food still ends up in the garbage.
“There are some kids that will pick it [school lunch] up and then leave it on the share table, and that gets registered as a compliant picked-up meal. Sometimes someone else will pick it up, sometimes not,” the Nutrition Clerk for Fox Elementary said.
According to many teachers and staff members at Fox Elementary, food waste has become even more present in California with the Universal Meal Program. At Fox Elementary, parents order school lunches for their kids in advance by choosing from a list of options. Because meals are free, even more parents have started utilizing the NSLP. The problem arises when parents don’t consult their kids on their preferred meal choice, but instead choose something their kids may not like.
“I do think that people order food because it’s free. You know, instead of just telling the kids, ‘Do you really like mac and cheese?’ and just saying ok, we’ll pack a lunch today since you don’t like that entree. Instead, the parents will just order free lunch. They’ll go, ‘What the heck, it’s free.’ So that does bother me,” said the nutrition clerk. “There’s less food waste when the parents are packing lunches kids enjoy.”
The lunch staff does try their best to save food for the following days, but items such as meat and cheese must be thrown out at the end of the day.
Some have tried to reduce food waste by bringing leftover food, such as apples and carrots, to nearby shelters. Not only does this reduce food waste, but it benefits other people with food insecurities. This method contains the same problem of saving food, however. Non-perishable meals cannot be brought to these shelters and once again end up in the trash.
“If it can be saved, it’s saved. If it can be donated, it’s donated. At Carlmont, I had a young man that used to pick up the leftover fruits because students wouldn’t take them. We had a share box that he would take down to the shelter,” Jonaidi said.
Additionally, food waste creates more problems than the apparent waste of food. Because many students don’t throw their trash in the proper bins, food waste creates issues with the ability to recycle products, contributing to even more waste.
“I think a lot of people take the food from hot lunches, and they don’t eat a lot of it, and they throw it away, maybe not in the right bins, or they just leave it on the ground,” Chloe Khachadourian, co-chair of the Sequoia Union High School Sustainability Committee, said.
While there is no obvious solution to the food waste problem, certain changes to the NSLP could be made to combat the problem.
“We’re talking about getting food carts, where if you don’t want your food, you can come and drop it off, and you can donate it to other people that need food,” Khachadourian said. “I think maybe just having some type of limit. Really think if you’re not going to eat the food, don’t get it.”