April 15, 2021

Achieving Zero Food Waste in the Education Sector

Kids eating lunch at elementary school

Food Waste Reduction Strategies in the Education Sector

With nearly 30 million meals fed to K-12 students each day, it’s easy to imagine why food waste might be an issue in the education sector. Certainly, the scope of the problem is tremendous. According to a 2019 report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), created with support from The Kroger Co. Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 4, U.S. school food waste amounts to 530,000 tons each year. This translates to 1.9 million MTCO2e of embedded greenhouse gases and 20.9 billion gallons of embedded water. College campuses throw out an additional 22 million pounds of uneaten food each year, according to the Food Recovery Network.

However, it’s the confusion that school districts and higher education institutions still have around how best to address this problem that seems to be a bigger challenge. Despite initiatives to encourage composting, less than 5 percent of K-12 schools are doing this. About half of 1% of the nation’s 98,000 public schools have a “share table,” where students can drop off unwanted pre-packaged foods, unopened wrapped food and beverages, or food items with a peel for other students who may still be hungry. Even fewer schools have active food donation programs.

Fortunately, there is greater awareness of this problem and a growing range of solutions, including options that take the burden of operational staff for disposing of messy, wasted food. 

Hurdles to stopping school food waste 

While food waste is being addressed across many school districts and higher education institutions, there are certain hurdles that are keeping schools from more proactively reducing food waste. For example, the unknowns around varying daily demand at higher education institutions have driven a model where food is served buffet-style as a way to avoid running out of food. This serving style also encourages diners to overindulge, piling food high on plates before turning to the trash can. 

K-12 institutions, on the other hand, face concerns around safety when it comes to share tables and re-serving uneaten food. When the Oakland Unified school district in California began considering share tables as a strategy for food waste reduction, the local Environmental Health Department raised concerns about safety. There were concerns from staff about reusing food items that had been handled by “messy kids.”

These concerns led this California school district to establish Food Share guidelines that set ground rules for arranging food share bins, educating students on food sharing rules, and strategies for re-serving or donating shared items. The district also established a “Take It & Go” initiative that allowed students to bring uneaten fruit and vegetables into the classroom after lunch, further ensuring students don’t go hungry. These educational initiatives have helped address both school food waste and provided additional support to some of the 11 million U.S. children in food insecure homes.

The cost of food waste

Raising awareness is a surmountable challenge for many schools; overcoming tight budgets is more difficult. Hiring a sustainability manager, as Oakland Unified has, requires additional funding. Tracking unserved items and managing redistribution takes time and, consequently, money. For schools facing a funding crisis, there seems to be no more room in budgets to take on new projects. 

However, it’s important to recognize that food waste handling and transport also takes time and money. As Nancy Deming, sustainability manager for custodial and nutritional services for Oakland Unified, writes in her K-12 School Food Recovery Roadmap, many of the simplest food waste reduction initiatives cost little to implement. Larger initiatives can benefit from local, regional and national funding or incentives. California’s CalRecycle, for example, has offered grants specifically for food recovery implementation. In addition, local waste management companies may be able to provide support. Finally, publicizing efforts the school is making to reduce food waste in the school could secure broader community involvement.

Early solutions to school food waste reduction 

The solutions for food waste reduction WWF identified in its report led to an average 3% reduction in food waste across the 46 schools studied. If that 3% reduction in food waste could be driven nationwide, the researchers stated, it would mean the equivalent of taking 12,400 passenger vehicles off the road for one year.

That’s a big impact, and demonstrates that there are solutions that can start to address food waste today. The WWF study focused on educating staff, students, and teachers to measure and separate food, an awareness-building activity that gets participants thinking about reducing serving sizes. Some colleges are taking a similar approach to encouraging more reasonable portion size. A Loyola University Chicago food waste initiative determined that a combination of eliminating trays and reducing plate sizes led to a near 30% reduction in school food waste. The school’s “Clean Plate Challenge” provides education throughout the year, confronting students with the environmental impact of their wasted food. 

Education about the size of food servings is a great start, but can only take schools so far in their efforts to reduce waste. A common next step is to turn to composting. These can include in-school programs, where small-scale compost piles can be used to enrich the soil, or offsite commercial compost facilities. 

The WWF reported on the result of one school’s pilot program with a commercial compost company. Through the pilot, the school was able to divert more than half of its typical lunchtime waste to composting. Students were responsible for dumping out liquids, leaving trash less messy and wet and therefore easier for custodians to handle. In addition, by separating waste, custodians were asked to lift fewer heavy bags. 

However, both onsite and offsite commercial solutions still require transport of food waste, whether to outside bins or an offsite facility. In both instances there is added work for custodians and, in the case of the latter solution, added expense. 

Minimizing labor around school food waste disposal

Schools that are searching for solutions for handling their remaining food waste may best be served with solutions that reduce the strain on their staff while lowering costs for the handling and disposal of that waste. Onsite biodigesters are proving particularly popular in school cafeterias for precisely these reasons. 

Biodigesters come in a wide range of styles, but the most effective solutions are able to break down any type of organic waste and can be easily integrated into existing workflows. Not only does this make it easier for staff to accept these solutions, but it also helps to reduce the risk of odor and pests that might otherwise accumulate.

At the University of Nebraska’s Selleck and Cather dining halls, onsite aerobic biodigesters are used to process 400 pounds of food each day. These large, metal boxes that break food down into a liquid that can be disposed of through the school sewage system. Dave Annis, director of University Dining Services, describes the system as a “mechanical stomach, always digesting away.”

At the Meyer Academy in Florida, the students enthusiastically use the LFC biodigester that was installed in 2016 and are being educated at a young age how to divert food waste from the landfill. “It’s up to the academy’s students to make sure the composter isn’t fed something foul. They sort their food and other recyclables from trash when they’re finished eating. They keep an eye on each other to make sure they get it right,” Interim Head of School Maya Scwartz said. “The kids are very excited,” Scwartz added. “They’re part of the recycling process. They take pride in that.”

The Loyola University food waste initiative that is encouraging smaller portion sizes also led the school to install a food waste digester in its Health Sciences Campus. The unit diverts more than 640 pounds of organic waste each month from the landfill.

A balanced approach to reducing school food waste

While schools are tasked with meeting a broad range of objectives, education is one area they are sure to find success. By educating students and staff about the problem of food waste today, schools can lay the groundwork for making a lasting social and environmental impact.

However, schools districts and higher education institutions also have a responsibility for managing their operating costs. By taking a multi-pronged approach that prioritizes lessening the burden on staff and the overall cost of waste disposal, schools can reinvest time and cost savings into educational priorities.

If you’re ready to make a change in how you approach waste, Power Knot can help. Contact us today. 

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