Minneaturizing School Food Waste

Minneapolis Public Schools are a national leader in food service. MPS has renovated nearly half of school kitchens and pledged to bring on-site cooking to all schools by 2025. It serves food without high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, artificial colors, or preservatives. Yet, MPS hasn’t focused much on tackling wasted food. Until now.

MPS Director of Culinary and Nutrition Services Bertrand Weber realized that the above improvements would mean little if students kept wasting food at the current, mind-numbing rate. Nationally, the USDA National School Lunch Program squanders about $5 million every day through discarded food. With that in mind, Weber hired me as a consultant (along with the NRDC’s ace JoAnne Berkenkamp) to create a food waste prevention plan for the district.

The result is now out–a three-year plan called True Food, No Waste. While much of the plan is specific to MPS, any school can glean some wisdom from the document.

The plan follows the traditional EPA Food Waste Reduction hierarchy, with an emphasis on reducing the amount of surplus food. One primary plank will be establishing “share tables” at all schools, allowing students to leave or pick up unwanted food items. As of now, fewer than 1 percent of US public schools have share tables. That’s astounding, given how incredibly low-tech and affordable share tables are–just add a horizontal surface!

Other neat parts of the plan:

  • Creating partnerships to donate excess food to community partners (non-profits)
  • Establishing signage to engage students on reducing wasted food
  • Prompting competition between schools to see who can waste the least
  • Facilitating lunch line sampling to allow students to try entrees before taking them
  • Implementing pre-consumer waste tracking software
  • Improving MPS food scrap recycling program, currently at about half of MPS schools

For other educators interested in fighting food waste but perhaps looking for a slightly…pared-down version of the MPS plan, here’s some lighter reading: Wasting Less Food in K-12 Settings, which I helped create along with NRDC.

Additionally, stay tuned for a very hands-on toolkit with lessons and activities for teaching food waste prevention called Food Matters. That CEC educational tool will be released later in March. (I’m part of the team creating it.)

In any case, let’s dedicate ourselves to teaching kids that food is special, not trash. Because outside of Minneapolis and a few select districts like Oakland, the school food waste status quo is failing (as in, getting an F).

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