Plate Waste Prevention in Child Nutrition ProgramsInformation on plate waste including strategies, best practices, and resources for sponsors participating in Child Nutrition Programs (CNP).
In the United States, food loss and waste is about 30 percent of the food supply at retail and consumer levels. Americans waste enough food every day to fill a 90,000 seat football stadium. Approximately one-third of all food is wasted at the retail and consumer levels. While the amount of food wasted in CNPs has not increased during recent years, there are many ways that everyone can help reduce, recover, and recycle food before it goes to waste and teach students about the impact it has on the environment and in their community.
There are three main challenges identified in efforts to reduce food waste in schools:
- Accommodating student taste preferences and unfamiliarity with menu items
- Helping students deal with early meal schedules and insufficient time to eat
- Redistributing uneaten, intact items
Successful strategies for minimizing plate waste that help address these challenges are as follows:
Challenge 1: Accommodating student taste preferences and unfamiliarity with menu items
- Obtain feedback on new menu items
- Implement the offer versus serve option across all applicable CNPs
- Provide more choices
- Serve foods with familiar flavors
- Serve ready-to-eat fruit
- Invite school staff and teachers to eat meals with students
- Use kid tested menus
Challenge 2: Helping students deal with early meal schedules and insufficient time to eat
- Encourage principals to schedule recess before lunch
- Encourage students to keep food items for snacks
- Offer grab-and-go items
- Serve Breakfast in the Classroom
Challenge 3: Redistributing uneaten, intact items
- Offer share tables
- Donate intact items to eligible local food banks or charitable organizations
Below are some best practices to consider for minimizing plate waste in your program(s):
- Buy what you need. Use production records and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Buying Guide web page
to help you reduce leftover food.
- Consider food sharing. Partner with your local health department to implement safe practices that encourage kids to leave unwanted food on share tables.
- Market your meals. Highlight new foods on your menus and serving lines. Consider holding taste tests and recipe competitions or creating a student advisory committee to provide feedback on food acceptability and recipe names. Check out the Team Nutrition Popular Events Booklet web page
- Create a Smarter Lunchroom. Offer a grab-and-go line for kids who want to get through the line faster so they have more time to eat. Use serving utensils that help kids take reasonable portions. Get more ideas on the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement website
- Check food acceptability. How do students feel about the foods being served? Is the fresh fruit ripe? Is the milk cold? Find out through student surveys or by doing your own check of what is offered.
- Give kids a choice. Participate in the offer versus serve option, which allows students to decline some of the food offered in a reimbursable lunch or breakfast. Or, consider a salad or produce bar to give children more choices among a variety of fruits and veggies.
- Cut fruit into smaller pieces. Whole fruit is more likely to be thrown away. Orange slices and apple quarters are easier and faster for kids to eat.
- Schedule recess before lunch. It can reduce plate waste by as much as 30 percent.
- Give kids time to eat. Extending the lunch period from 20 to 30 minutes can help reduce waste by nearly one-third.
- Donate safe food. Partner with your health department and local hunger relief organizations to donate safe and wholesome food. See the USDA policy memo Guidance on the Food Donation Program in Child Nutrition Programs .
For questions regarding the content of this web page, please contact your School Nutrition Program (SNP) or Summer Meals Unit (SMU) Specialist.
Mia Bertacchi, Child Nutrition Assistant, Northern School Nutrition Program Unit (SNPU), by phone at 916-445-1261 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Lori Porter, Child Nutrition Consultant, Southern SNPU, by phone at 916-322-1454 or by email at email@example.com.
Barbara Hedges, CNC, SMU, by phone at 916-327-6071 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following links provide resources used for minimizing plate waste:
- Smarter Lunchrooms Movement
- Ensuring Adequate Time to Eat
- Guide to Conducting Student Food Waste Audits (PDF)
- What You Can Do To Help Prevent Wasted Food (PDF)
- Food Loss and Waste | USDA
- Environmental Protection Agency: Food Too Good to Waste Implementation Guide and Toolkit
- USDA Plate Waste Study (Jan 2016) (PDF)
- Reduce Plate Waste: School, Home, and Eating Out
- Donation of Leftover Food in Child Nutrition Programs
- The Use of Share Tables