Food Waste Reduction Toolkit for Illinois Schools now available for download

This post originally appeared on the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) Blog on April 13, 2020. 

Just in time for the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, the Wasted Food Action Alliance is pleased to announce the release of the Food Waste Reduction Toolkit for Illinois Schools. Though schools throughout the state are currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this toolkit will allow districts and food service staff members to make plans for food waste reduction efforts when schools are able to welcome back students and staff in person.

The Wasted Food Action Alliance is a diverse set of organizations helping build a unified approach towards reducing wasted food and leveraging it to benefit our region. Its mission is to develop a working strategy and action platform that makes Illinois a leader in reducing wasted food by connecting and building on current wasted food initiatives, education, and policy in unified ways that holistically promote source reduction; food recovery for hunger relief and other uses; and recovery of food scraps for composting and creating healthy soil.

Joy Scrogum, a member of ISTC’s Technical Assistance Program (TAP), is part of the Wasted Food Action Alliance subcommittee which developed the school food waste reduction toolkit. Joy coordinated ISTC’s Green Lunchroom Challenge project, and continues to work on food waste prevention and reduction through TAP’s work with clients, the Illinois Food Scrap Coalition, and related local and regional projects. The Wasted Food Action Alliance school toolkit subcommittee was lead by Seven Generations Ahead.

Cover of Food Waste Reduction Toolkit for Illinois SchoolsWhat’s the problem with food waste in schools?

Over 7 billion school meals are served each year in the United States. Much of this food, however, is currently feeding landfills instead of nourishing students. This is while one in six children is food insecure. When food is landfilled, not only are its nutrients lost, so are all the energy, water, and labor that went into producing, transporting, and preparing it. K-12 schools have a unique role in teaching students to value food instead of wasting it.

The Food Waste Reduction Toolkit for Illinois Schools can help.

The Toolkit is a comprehensive resource that provides all schools, no matter their size or location, the tools to tackle the issue of wasted food. It identifies the main sources of wasted food and offers strategies for food waste prevention, recovery and redistribution, composting, education and engagement, and celebrating success. A variety of solutions are shared–from easy and quick to implement to longer term and more resource intensive.

The Toolkit’s easy to use format allows you to jump in to find the strategies that work for your school. Each section includes case studies that highlight inspirational efforts to reduce food waste in schools across Illinois and provides guidance on:

Measuring food waste

  • Waste audit guides
  • How to determine what to audit in your lunchroom and kitchen
  • Food waste tracking in kitchens
  • Analyzing waste audit data

Preventing food waste

  • Sourcing food from school gardens and local farms to encourage consumption of healthy foods
  • Menu planning and food preparation
  • Preventing food waste at the serving line, including Offer versus Serve

Recovering and redistributing surplus food

  • Policies and laws regarding share tables and the redistribution of food (including the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act that supports the donation of recovered food)
  • How to set up and operate a share table
  • Redistribution of surplus food within a school
  • Donation of surplus food to an outside organization or in-school food pantry

Composting food scraps

  • The environmental benefits of composting
  • Onsite composting
  • Offsite commercial composting
  • How to get started composting in your lunchroom

Educating and engaging the school community

  • Hands-on classroom or service learning projects
  • Curricula and lessons about food and food waste
  • Teaching tools and resources

Communicating and celebrating success

  • Communications within school community
  • Communications with the wider community
  • Get recognized with programs such as Green Ribbon Schools and the U.S. Food Waste Challenge

The toolkit is available on the Wasted Food Action Alliance web site.

Washington, IL School Works with UI Extension to Reduce Food Waste

In response to the concern expressed by students, staff, and parents, UI Extension SNAP-Education Educator Kaitlyn Streitmatter worked with Beverly Manor Junior High in Washington, IL to investigate ways to reduce food waste in the school’s cafeteria as well as increase the amount of healthy food consumed by students. A plate waste audit was conducted to determine how much of the food served to students ended up being uneaten and sent to landfill. That initial audit found 107.74 pounds (27%) of school-food served ended up as waste.

Streitmatter worked with the district’s food service director, Joan Wood, to implement an “offer vs. serve” approach in the cafeteria. “Offer vs. Serve” is a provision of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) which allows students to decline some of the offered components of a “reimbursable meal.” A “reimbursable meal” in NSLP is one which includes offering five required food components–fruits, vegetables, grains, meat or meat alternate, and fluid milk (requirements are slightly different for the SBP). This is meant to ensure that children are eating nutritionally balanced meals. Often, schools or districts participating in the NSLP and SBP believe that in order to receive reimbursement from the USDA, students MUST take all of the food components served. Of course, not all children will eat every item served by a food service program–if a school serves peaches, for example, and a child loathes peaches, then the fruit on that child’s tray is destined for the waste stream. Other factors come into play in determining whether or not a child will eat a given item, such as the seated time they have during their lunch period, how much they talk to friends at lunch as opposed to eating, how they’re feeling that day, etc. But the point is, if you serve the same things to all children in your cafeteria, without taking into account the children’s preferences, you’re creating a situation in which food waste will be higher than otherwise.

The “offer vs. serve” strategy allows schools to offer students a selection of items within a given food component group–for example, a choice of peaches, apple slices, or a banana for the fruit component. A meal is reimbursable as long as it includes a certain number of food components in minimum required amounts or serving sizes. So in a school that practices “offer vs. serve,” the child that loathes peaches might opt to instead take the apple slices she loves, and thus actually eat the fruit. This results in a “triple win”–the child gets the nutrition the food service workers intended for her, the school doesn’t waste money on food that ends up being hauled away as waste, and of course, the environment wins because less material is sent to landfill.

Streitmatter conducted training for food service staff to ensure understanding and successful implementation of the “offer vs. serve” policy. Students and school staff also received training and additional signage was posted to help guide participants. The policy was piloted with the school’s eighth grade but was adopted across the school when it proved successful.

A second plate waste study was conducted after the policy change and showed food waste dropped to 53 pounds (12.7%) across the 400 students in grades 4-8.

For more information about this case study, see “New policies reduce school lunchroom food waste” in the Sept. 27, 2019 edition of Agrinews.  You may also wish to contact Kaitlyn Streitmatter or Beverly Manor Junior High.

For more information on “offer vs. serve,” see the following resources:

Green Lunchroom Challenge Suggested Activity: Employ the principles of “offer versus serve”

Updated Offer vs Serve Guidance for the NSLP and SBP Beginning SY2015-16 from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service

Offer versus Serve National School Lunch Program Posters from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service

Cashier’s Training: Reimbursable Meals Participant’s Workbook from the Institute of Child Nutrition

For guidance on conducting a plate waste audit at your school, see:

Green Lunchroom Challenge Suggested Activity: Do a baseline lunchroom waste characterization (pre waste-free lunch day or policy implementation)

Green Lunchroom Challenge Suggested Activity: Do a follow-up lunchroom waste characterization (post waste-free lunch day or policy implementation)

Guide to Conducting Student Food Waste Audits: A Resource for Schools from the USDA, US EPA and the University of Arkansas