Food Waste in Schools: America’s Latest Epidemic and the Simple Solutions to Solving It


Food Waste in Schools: America’s Latest Epidemic and the Simple Solutions to Solving It

Hanna Wondmagegn
Published by the PIT Journal: 


Food waste has become a national and global epidemic and with increased proposals, ideas and initiatives presented by different actors on the local and national level, there seems to be no solution in sight. However, one simple answer lies in educational institutions across America: food recovery programs. Relying on completed and ongoing case studies on both successful and failed food recovery programs in America, this paper explores different and existing programs in place on the school level to reduce waste, introduces and analyzes policies in support or opposition of these programs, explores the benefits of food recovery programs as temporary and supplemental additions to food reduction and conservation, and explains why it is important to invest and education children at a young age. In addition, this paper provides additional suggestions for improving current models and existing programs with the same goal of reducing food waste in America and in the world. 



Food waste is perhaps one of America’s best kept secrets, covertly festering in landfills across the nation and slowly eating away at America’s resources. America as a country wastes 40 percent of its food, worth 165 billion dollars per year (Dana). Although throwing away a food item or leftovers from a meal may not seem like a big deal, food waste in any form has severe financial implications in addition to threatening the environment and the wellbeing of Earth’s inhabitants.

When it comes to approaching the issue of food waste, little is currently being done at the governmental level, with the exception of one historic federal action in 2015, when the United States Department of Agriculture announced the first federal goal to reduce 50 percent of food waste by 2030 (“USDA and EPA Join with Private Sector, Charitable Organizations to Set Nation's First Food Waste Reduction Goals”). Prior to this announcement, and in response to it, grassroots movements and non-profit organizations have been working on this issue, focusing on local efforts to address food waste. One such organization is Food Rescue, a nonprofit in Indiana that works to educate people on school food waste. Despite the fact that schools accumulate less food waste compared to the consumer and commercial level, “no-food-waste” initiatives in schools are perhaps the most sustainable of all such efforts; schools are where students learn life lessons and educating students on food waste at a young age is a sustainable and direct investment in the commitment to ending food waste. This paper aims to survey existing ideas about ending food waste in schools and bridge the conversation of school food waste between policy makers and people and groups who are already involved in finding solutions. In order to answer the question of how-to best address food waste in schools, I will first explore the solutions held by scholars and other actors involved in the food waste field. After summarizing their views, I will explain my own view on how to best address food waste produced in. Finally, I will provide potential solutions based off of my research and my personal experiences in working with food waste in schools.

In recent discussions about food waste in secondary and public schools, a controversial issue has been how best to address waste produced by students. On the one hand, food waste activists, environmentalists, and students argue that donating leftover and uneaten school food products is the best way to utilize and address food waste. Other advocates argue that stronger measures, namely a combination of donation and food waste preventative measures, are needed in order to eliminate food waste. Alternatively, health departments and some schools argue against food recovery programs and waste prevention methods, citing potential health concerns associated with the former and liability with the latter.

An active and outspoken activist and president of Food Rescue, John Williamson argues that schools and students need to take an active role in developing initiatives to address food waste. Food recovery programs are one such initiative. As defined by the Agricultural & Food Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law, food recovery is “the practice of preventing surplus food stuffs from being dumped in the trash” (Civita). Simply put, food recovery is the simple process of recovering uneaten and untouched food products that can then be redistributed to people in need; in this way, food is diverted from the landfills while also serving the local community. Williamson emphasizes that these benefits, among others, are a great motivation to introduce the model of food recovery into schools. In practice, students in such programs typically donate any unopened and uneaten pre-packaged food items during their lunch that would then be transported to a local organization that would redistribute the food items to people in need. Williamson’s idea of food recovery programs is supported and promoted by activists and scholars such as journalist Jonathan Bloom and National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) member Dana Gunders. Food recovery programs are even supported by the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency, which states that “donating wholesome food for human consumption diverts food waste from landfills and puts food on the table for families in need” (Recovery/Donations).  Through this statement, the federal government has implicitly validated Williamson's strategy of food recovery programs as an effective tool for addressing food waste.

Taking Williamson’s strategy one step further, journalist and food waste consultant Jonathan Bloom insists that integrating a combination of food waste prevention strategies and food recovery programs is key to best addressing food waste in schools. Bloom argues that food waste prevention methods such as extending lunch times, changing the layout of lunchrooms, creating self-serve lines, renaming food items, and having lunch after recess are key steps to take in preventing students from wasting food (Bloom). By identifying the factors that allow for waste to exist, and then making a conscious decision to manipulate those factors, Bloom argues that waste can be dramatically reduced. In addition, Bloom agrees that food recovery programs are necessary to supplement food waste prevention methods. Bloom writes “despite these waste-reducing strategies, there will still be uneaten food. Fortunately, donation of packaged foods and whole fruits from schools is a burgeoning trend” (Bloom). In making this comment, Bloom is acknowledging that waste will still be present and there should be initiatives that are anticipating and handling that waste. Bloom then goes further, writing that for food items and meals that may not be donated, “more schools should compost” (Bloom). By not only acknowledging that there will still be surplus food after food waste prevention, but also waste after donation, Bloom provides a comprehensive model of reducing waste in all the potential areas where food could be wasted.

Bloom’s comprehensive approach to food waste is supported and promoted by the USDA and EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy. According to the EPA, The Food Recovery Hierarchy “prioritizes actions organizations can take to prevent and divert wasted food” (Food Recovery Hierarchy). In order of priorities, food waste should be addressed by reducing food at the source, feeding people, feeding animals, providing waste to industries to convert to energy, composting, and, finally, landfills or incineration (Food Recovery Hierarchy). By following the Food Recovery Hierarchy, both Williamson’s and Bloom’s models of addressing waste are validated, with Williamson’s focusing on one part of the hierarchy and Bloom’s encompassing it all.

Despite the feasibility of both Williamson’s and Bloom’s strategies and the full support of the federal government, some individual state health departments and schools argue that the aforementioned strategies cause more harm than good. Oftentimes, when it comes to food donation, the question of food safety and the legal implications should someone get sick are used as a reason to not engage in food waste related initiatives. Williamson and Bloom anticipate health and safety concerns, informing schools that there is legal protection of food donation in the form of the Good Samaritan Act. Signed in 1996 and amended in 2010, The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act states that any non-profit organization or person donating food without ill intent “shall not be subject to civil or criminal liability” (Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act). In short, any fear of being held liable should anyone get sick from donated food is unnecessary, as there are laws protecting people and organizations. In addition, the National School Lunch Act was amended in 2011 to encourage schools to donate excess food. In a memo sent out by the USDA to regional and state directors of child nutrition programs in 2012, the changes were made aware, and it was clarified that “any program food not consumed may be donated to eligible local food banks or charitable organization” (Guidance on the Food Donation Program in Child Nutrition Programs). Through this memo, there was a direct effort to encourage no-food-waste initiatives and attempt to address the issue of food waste in schools. However, despite this outreach, whenever referring to either the Bill Emerson Act or the National School Lunch Act, schools and states are unaware that they exist. Due to the lack of education, awareness, and reluctance to oversee food waste initiatives in individual schools, schools are prevented from being able to successfully address the issues of school food waste.

In addition to a simple lack of awareness on food waste, schools oftentime insist that they are not willing to host food recovery programs due to logistical challenges. In her report to the NRDC, Gunders states that businesses that have developed food recovery programs are often hindered by the logistical process of transporting the food, updating tax incentives and the food supply not matching the needs of the organization receiving the food (Gunders). Although Gunders was referring to business models, similar obstacles are often reflected among schools when approached about hosting a food recovery program. In a study conducted by the School Nutrition Association that looked at the efficacy and problems with food recovery programs in the Mountain - Plains region, it was revealed that schools face a number of obstacles in either starting no-food-waste initiatives or maintaining them. 34.4 percent of schools not participating in any type of initiative stated that administrative or regulatory factors maintained by the school or school district prevented them from having a food recovery program in their school (Lee). 18.2 percent were concerned about the costs of maintaining the program, while 12.8 percent said they were concerned about legal liability (Lee). These three statements provide insight on the challenges that schools have faced that have prevented them from addressing food waste issues in their schools. Food Rescue program director Jennifer Carmack Brilliant agrees that there are other obstacles besides the lack of education. Quoted in an article by NUVU, Brilliant stated that when approaching schools to start food recovery programs, schools often tell them that “‘we don’t have the room or the staff.’ There are already so many mandates on schools that there’s the mentality that they couldn’t possible take on one more thing” (Wenck). In other words, Brilliant believes that schools are not only uneducated about what they are allowed to do, but are also unwilling to start because of other expectations that are pressured to meet.

Both Brilliant and Gunders are correct in the assumption that schools and state health departments are not completely educated on the issue of food waste, in addition to what they are and are not allowed to do under federal guidelines and laws, as this is proven in both Lee’s study. As revealed in Lee’s study, schools are willing to participate in food recovery donation programs, but because of the disconnect between federal and state guidelines and the lack of direct outreach to schools and state health departments, many schools are prevented from continuing. 68.3 percent of the schools surveyed Lee’s study said that they were interested in state and USDA regulations on food recovery programs, and 54.4 percent wanted to know how other schools practiced food recovery programs (Lee). This study reveals a willingness of schools to begin food waste initiatives and learn about what they can do to address school food waste, but because resources aren’t available on hand, they are unable to. In short, the issue is not the lack of resources, as there is plenty of support available, but rather that these resources are not being shared to others appropriately.

This lack of education and direct effective outreach to schools and state health departments has led to an increasingly dangerous power shift from the federal government to the state health departments. Documented on Food Rescue’s “History of School Food Rescue & Share Table Guidelines in the U.S.”, individual state health departments are increasingly adding additional obstacles to no-food-waste initiatives by passing guidelines that prevent them from running and supporting legislation that does the same. Starting in 2016, North Carolina Public Health Department sent out a memo that stated that only “unserved food is allowed to be donated.” This effectively shut down a food recovery program that I was running at my high school. The program had run for 1.5 academic years and collected over 4,500 food items. However, after the memo was sent out, the program was forced to shut down because the number of food items that were allowed to be collected under the guidance of the new memo were negligible. The memo not only successfully shut down my program, but has prevented other no-food-waste initiatives in North Carolina, all of whom have come in contact with me at some point after seeing what happened to my program. A few months later, Connecticut passed a similar memo, shutting down a program affiliated with Food Rescue (“School Food Waste Policy History.”). Thankfully, these are the only two known states that have passed such memos limiting the efficacy of food recovery donation programs. In fact, according to Food Rescue’s documentation of share table and food recovery guidelines, 15 states have passed guidelines in support of food recovery programs and share tables (“School Food Waste Policy History.”).

Despite the undeniable benefits of no food waste initiatives and the laws that support such programs, health departments have the ultimate control in deciding the future of food waste initiatives, and their concerns and demands must be acknowledged. Therefore, I argue that scholars and policy makers need to engage with each others to discuss how to best educate and promote no-food waste initiatives, as it is in everyone’s best interests to do so in order to reach 50 percent food waste reduction by 2030.

Currently, the main source of education appears to be in the form of memos being sent out to individual state directors, with the expectation that they will read them and act on them. Although this is perhaps the easiest method of contacting all the state directors, it is not the most effective. I propose that there be more direct contact between the USDA and EPA in the form of departmental check-ins, regional workshops on food waste with examples of initiatives that can be used at their schools, and most importantly, a position within either the USDA or EPA that is tasked with overseeing food waste initiatives and education, and anything else food waste related (surprisingly, no such position currently exists). In addition, increased support from the federal government to grassroots movements like Food Rescue, Food Bus and other food waste actors are necessary to maintain the local education and advocacy that non-profit organizations can provide. With a combination of a top down approach and outreach with bottom-up initiatives tasked with educating the general and immediate public, there will be an increased likelihood that people will become more invested in food waste. In regards to school food waste specifically, students will learn more about their food waste impact on their community, take their knowledge back home to their families, and create a ripple effect of change that would echo across the nation and across the world.

As dramatic as it may sound, what is at stake here is the future of the world and the livelihoods of everyone living in it. Food waste affects everyone: environmentally, as food waste accumulates in landfills, it begins to produce methane gas, a greenhouse gas that is 28 to 36 times more potent than carbon dioxide (Basic Information about Landfill Gas). Depletion of resources and even potential destruction of some, such as landfill space, is perhaps one of the biggest threats. When food is wasted, not only is the food itself wasted, but so are all the resources that went into producing the item, including labor, farmland and soil, water and energy and more. With an expected population of nine billion people by 2050 (World population projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050.), scientists, economists, policy makers, farmers, and other officials are frantically scrambling to find solutions to provide enough food and space, all of which could potentially be solved if food waste was appropriately addressed and eradicated. By engaging in conversations about food waste solutions on a school level, this not only fosters future leaders, but also is a small-scale model that can be replicated among all food consumers and their policy makers; by familiarizing schools with the law and food waste, there will be a willingness and a model to follow when developing federal law on food waste in the future. And that is a learning opportunity that we cannot afford to miss.


Works Cited

“Basic Information about Landfill Gas.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. 14 March 2018

Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act. Pub L. 104-210. 110 Stat. 1 October 1996. GPO.

Bloom, Jonathan. “Schooling Food Waste: How Schools Can Teach Kids to Value Food.” Food value-food/

Civita, Nicole, “Food Recovery: A Legal Guide.” University of Arkansas School of Law. pp. 1-12

“Food Recovery Hierarchy.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. 19 February 2017

“Guidance on the Food Donation Program in Child Nutrition Programs.” Received by Regional Directors of Special Nutrition Programs & State Directors of Child Nutrition Programs, USDA, 3 Feb. 2012,

Gunders, Dana. “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill.” National Resource Defense Council. NRDC, 2012., PDF

Lee, Kyung-Eun, and Carol W Shanklin. “Food Recovery: A Win-Win Solution for School Foodservice and the Community .” The Journal of Child Nutrition & Management, vol. 26, no. 2, 2002, Child_Nutrition_and_Management/Spring_2002/8-lee.pdf.

“Recovery/Donations.” USDA.

“School Food Waste Policy History.” Food Rescue.


“USDA and EPA Join with Private Sector, Charitable Organizations to Set Nation's First Food Waste Reduction Goals.”, USDA and EPA, 16 Sept. 2015,

Wenck, Ed. “Rescuing untouched school food: K-12 Food Rescue diverts food waste from landfills.”

NUVO, 2 March 2016.


“World population projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050.” United Nations. 29 July 2015, New York.

About the Author(s)

Hanna Wondmagegn is currently a sophomore double majoring in Food Studies and Media and Journalism. Born in Virginia to Ethiopian immigrants, Hanna was raised in Charlotte, N.C. and has worked with food waste since she was 15 years old. Currently, she is working on several projects in food policy and food waste on the local and national level, including the reversal of the N.C. food policy on school food recovery programs mentioned in the paper, consulting of start-up national food recovery programs, working with the Orange County Food Council and the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association to cooperate and collaborate with food groups across N.C and performing food waste audits in Chapel Hill and Carrboro schools with the assistance of the World Wildlife Fund and the USDA. Hanna is currently developing a proposal to travel to Italy during the summer of 2019 to develop a photo and documentary story on the intersection of food and immigrant culture in Italy.