5 Proven Ways To Reduce School Food Waste

While every school’s priority is to feed students delicious and nutritious meals, their second priority typically lands on their budget. However, one of the biggest impacts to a school’s budget isn’t what they buy, it’s what they waste. Decreasing food waste can feel like a difficult task, but there are very easy practices you can implement that can make a noticeable difference. We spoke to Fred Espinosa, Acquisition and Production Manager with Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) at the San Diego Unified School District, about the successful ways their schools have been able to reduce food waste.

1. Portion Control

school tray The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Offer versus Serve (OVS) model is a great example of how to control how much food is being wasted. When kids are able to choose the foods they want, they are less likely to throw them away. San Diego Unified’s FNS program uses OVS. Staff is trained to know what students are required to take, at lunch it is three of five components (milk, grain, meat/meat alternative, fruit, and vegetable). One of the three must be a fruit or vegetable.

Oftentimes, students take milk, never open it and eventually throw it away. Milk is not required.  FNS’s Love Food Not Waste team and kitchen staff encourage students to take milk only if they want it. Students who change their mind later can place unopened milk on a share table. Money is saved by reducing food waste at the point of service.

2. Food Recovery

Espinosa emphasizes training staff to appropriately and diligently recover food so that it can be put back into production or donated. Share tables are especially valuable for food recovery because they promote consumption from within the school, whereas food donation involves added time, resources and management of excess food.

salad bar at school

With 338 salad bars in their schools, it’s important to educate students to be mindful of how much food they put on their plates. When San Diego Unified’s FNS team studied salad bar participation, an average of 15 to 20 pounds of leftovers per school per day were being discarded. Espinosa learned that some of his staff were filling up the 4” pans during meal service to make them look full and appealing to the kids. To combat this issue, 4” deep salad bar pans were traded in for 2” deep pans, especially for items that weren’t taken as often. This practice of filling salad bar pans to a “tastefully empty” level was instrumental in reducing salad bar leftovers drastically to 5 to 7 pounds per day versus 15 to 20 pounds previously.

ProTip: San Diego Unified’s FNS team made one seemingly small and inexpensive change that helped greatly reduce their salad bar waste. By adding chili-lime seasoning (similar to Tajin) to their bars at their secondary and some elementary schools, they were able to increase salad bar participation.

4. Food Rescue

food rescue infographicIn 2016, San Diego Unified’s FNS estimated 9 to 10 tons of food per day was getting thrown away; this catalyst got their Love Food Not Waste program off the ground and shined a huge light on food waste prevention in the district. After the pandemic, Espinosa and his team have been working on revamping the program to revise necessary protocols, address staffing issues, and identify hunger relief agencies that will work with them. Previously, they had 4 key steps that enabled them to create a successful program:

  • Developing a key partnership with Feeding San Diego to identify partner agencies that could pick up from their production kitchens every day.
  • Creating a route system that incorporated food delivery trucks to back-haul rescued food to production kitchens or the central warehouse.
  • Created a binder with protocols for school kitchens after getting approval from their local health department.
  • Met with key kitchen staff to review the procedures and answer any questions

As a result, more than 615,000 lbs. of edible food was kept out of landfills. This equates to nearly 492,600 meals provided to those in need in the San Diego community.

5. Composting

compostingThey say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and when it comes to composting, no truer words were ever spoken! Food scraps can be composted. Recycling food scraps into compost provides a range of environmental benefits including improved soil health, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and recycling nutrients. San Diego Unified’s FNS created a Café to Compost program that encourages their schools with active gardens to coordinate with their school café to collect leftover fresh fruit and vegetables from the salad bar to compost directly on site. In October 2022, they started a kitchen food scrap collection program for off-site composting in conjunction with the district’s contracted waste and recycling hauler.

Reducing food waste is a simple and effective way to utilize your resources and budget. When you start to implement these practices, you may be surprised by the impacts. If you’re not sure where to start, contact your local Cambro sales rep to get equipped with the right products to support your goals.


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