Reducing School Food Waste

On September 16, 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the United States’ first-ever national food waste reduction goal, calling for a 50-percent reduction by 2030 (USDA News Release No. 0257.15).

In Louisiana, there are many points at which food loss and waste are generated, including in schools and households. Luckily, there are proven strategies that are simple and cost-effective to implement and can help reduce the amount of waste in school nutrition programs.

Best Practices for Child Nutrition Programs to Help Reduce School Food Waste

Cafeteria Trash Can Containing Food Waste

Healthy Kids, Not Healthy Trash Cans

The best way to tackle food waste is to make sure students consume what they take. USDA recommends "If a school has leftover food on a frequent basis, menu planning and production practices should be adjusted to reduce leftovers." (USDA Memo SP 11-2012) This involves good planning by school nutrition staff, getting students and families involved in decision-making, and educating students on the impacts of wasted food.

More Information

USDA Reducing Food Waste Logo
Meal Planning

Visit the Institute of Child Nutrition Sharing Site to find resources that specifically address menu and recipe evaluation. The Child Nutrition Sharing Site (CNSS) is an online information center providing Child Nutrition Programs (CNPs) with a means for sharing effective resources related to program operation.

The Institute of Child Nutrition also hosts a Child Nutrition Recipe Box. The Recipe Box provides Child Nutrition Program operators with standardized recipes for meals that meet meal pattern requirements.

Apples in Cups
Photo Credit: Brady Connelly

School meals programs should also routinely evaluate instances of leftovers/food and take action to reduce this occurrence. "As always, CNP operators should take steps to encourage consumption of the meal, including preparing appealing meals and serving them in a convenient manner. For example, CNP operators are encouraged to promote meal consumption by including an option of cut up whole fruit to make it easier to eat, and engaging children through taste tests, student advisory committees, and nutrition education. These practices help ensure children get the most out of the food assistance programs." (USDA Memo SP 41-2016)

Taste Tests

The Louisiana Farm to School program’s taste test guide for students may be found on Page 27 in the Louisiana Harvest of the Month Toolkit.

Action for Healthy Kids has other resources on its Host a Taste Test page on how to engage your school community in selecting products and tasting recipes for you school nutrition program.

Batch Cooking

Batch Cooking is a great way to reduce food waste. Batch cooking means you cook less often. You can focus on fewer recipes and spend less time in the kitchen. Food is prepped or cooked in advance and then either heated or assembled to order streamlining and optimizing school meal systems.

Trends in School Nutrition

Resources for Nutrition Integrity Goals to Reduce Food Waste

Keys to Excellence: Standards of Practice for Nutrition Integrity Icon
1. Keys to Excellence: Standards of Practice for Nutrition Integrity is an initiative of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) designed to assist schools in achieving nutrition integrity goals at the administrative, management, and operational levels. This tool, through its standards of practice and indicators, defines national standards for quality programs and provides a framework for continuous program review, evaluation, and improvement. The Keys to Excellence are also the basis for the 4 Key Areas in USDA’s Professional Standards for School Nutrition Programs Personnel launched in July 2015 and revised in July 2019. See Best Practices B1.2 and B7.3 for tips on food waste.

School Meal Programs Innovate to Improve Student Nutrition Icon
2. School Meal Programs Innovate to Improve Student Nutrition is a report from The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. See page 17 for information that specifically relates to food waste. This report explores the survey results on SFA directors’ perspectives on meal and snack nutrition requirements and on districts’ experiences implementing the updated standards near the end of SY 2014-15. It reveals that many districts have emerged from the most challenging phase of the transition to healthier meals.

Offer Versus Serve

Offer Versus Serve (OVS) Tip Sheet for School Food Service Managers Icon
Food service operations with increased food costs may want to consider implementing Offer Versus Serve (OVS). OVS is a provision with two major goals: (1) reduce food waste in CNPs, and (2) permit children to select only the foods they want to consume. OVS allows students to decline components during a breakfast, lunch, or supper service. The number of components that can be declined at each meal service is contingent on the CNP the agency operates. While OVS is required for lunch at the high school level for the National School Lunch Program, it is optional for all other grade levels.

USDA Offer Versus Color Your Lunch Tray! Icon
The USDA has developed Offer Versus Serve National School Lunch Program Posters and Tip Sheets that are intended to educate students in selecting a reimbursable lunch under Offer Versus Serve. Teachers and school food service professionals will find these posters help students more quickly select the foods in the lunch line that make up a reimbursable meal.

John Dupre, Director of Nutrition Support for the Louisiana Department of Education, Visiting with Students in a Cafeteria

Menu Planning Flexibilities

Beginning July 1, 2019, updated school meals regulations allowed for menu planning flexibilities with regard to milk, whole grain and sodium requirements. The changes allow school meals program operators to plan menus that encourage the consumption of a variety of grains, fruits, vegetables, protein and low-fat dairy, while appealing to student tastes and reducing the incidence of discarded food.

The school meals proposed rule would continue to ensure children receive wholesome, tasty meals that provide the nutrition they need to grow and thrive, while offering increased flexibilities for local school districts to serve children food they will want to eat.

Students Selecting Food in a Cafeteria Serving Line

In January 2020, USDA released a proposed rule, "Simplifying Meal Service and Monitoring Requirements in the NSLP and SBP". The proposed rule would:

Allow local schools to offer more vegetable varieties, while keeping plenty of veggies in each meal;
Offer legumes as a meat alternate could count toward the weekly legume requirement.
Provide schools options to customize meal patterns to best serve children in different grades or smaller schools who eat together;
Make it easier for schools to offer school lunch entrées for a la carte purchase, thereby reducing food waste;
Support a more customized school breakfast environment by letting schools adjust fruit servings and making it simpler to offer meats/meat alternates, ultimately encouraging breakfast options outside the cafeteria so students can start their day with a healthy breakfast;
Exempt SBP and NSLP entrées from the competitive food standards on the day the entrée is offered on the school menu and for two days after.
Expand the flexibility for the sale of calorie-free, naturally flavored waters during the school day.
Shift to a performance-focused administrative review process that is less burdensome and time consuming, which would increase collaboration with operators to improve program integrity

Share Tables

A share table is a place where students can place unopened food and drinks that they choose not to eat or drink. Students drop off unwanted food and drink on the Share Table immediately after leaving the serving line.

While USDA regulations allow the use of share tables in school meals programs (see USDA Memo SP 41-2016 The Use of Share Tables in CNPs or the actual memo as a PDF), the Louisiana Sanitary Code prohibits the re-service of food once it has been served to a consumer.
Louisiana Administrative Code, Title 51, Part XXIII, Chapter 19
§1909. Reservice [formerly paragraph 22:12-5] A. Once served to a consumer, portions of left-over food shall not be reserved, except: 1. food that is not potentially hazardous, such as crackers and condiments, in an unopened original package and maintained in sound condition may be reserved or resold; 2. food that is dispensed so that it is protected from contamination and the container is closed between uses, such as a narrow-neck bottle containing catsup, steak sauce, or wine.

Students Looking at a Table of Produce

However, in an attempt to assist with controlling food waste, the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) has indicated that child nutrition program operators who wish to institute a share table at a school may submit a proposed plan to LDH for review and possible grant of a variance.

How Can Schools Fight Waste? Icon

When it comes to share tables, it is imperative that proper food safety and food handling procedures are followed and that School Food Authorities work closely with parish sanitarians to make sure an approved sharing plan is in place. Allowing share tables may, in a controlled manner, reduce food waste and allow additional nutrition opportunities for children.

Louisiana Share Table Guidelines

Louisiana Department of Health Logo

SFA applicants will need to submit a variance request and identify the parameters under which they will conduct the share tables. Submit your requests to the local LDH Environmental Health Sanitarian Services Office in your parish. In order for consideration of the variance, the plan must include the following information from the Guide to Share Tables from the Louisiana Department of Health.

Louisiana School Food Share Table Request Form

How are Louisiana Schools Helping to Reduce Food Waste?

Learn more about the New Share Carts in Calcasieu Parish Schools. These share carts at LeBleu Settlement Elementary School are a fun and effective way of reducing food waste and minimizing childhood hunger.

Final Rule Flexibilities for Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium Requirements

Flavored Milk

The rule allows schools in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs to offer flavored, low-fat (1 percent) milk at lunch and breakfast and as a beverage for sale a la carte, without the need to demonstrate operational hardship, and requires that unflavored milk (fat-free or low-fat) be available at each school meal service.

For consistency across programs, the rule extends the milk flexibility to the Special Milk Program for Children and to the Child and Adult Care Food Program for children ages six and older and adult participants.

Whole Grains

The rule requires that half of the weekly grains in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs be whole grain-rich; the remaining weekly grains offered must be enriched.

Sodium Reduction Timeline

The rule illustrated by the USDA SBP and NSLP Sodium Timeline & Limits retains Sodium Target 1 through School Year 2023-2024, moves Target 2 to School Year 2024-2025, and removes the final target in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.

Tools for Schools: Reducing Sodium