Iowa Waste Reduction Center Releases School Food Waste Whitepaper

The Iowa Waste Reduction Center (IWRC) at the University of Northern Iowa recently released a whitepaper characterizing food waste at K-12 schools in rural Iowa. Food Waste in Rural Schools analyzes data collected by the IWRC over the last five years of providing direct technical assistance to K-12 schools across the state related to food waste prevention and reduction.

IWRC estimates K-12 students in Iowa tossed over 150,000 pounds of food and beverage waste every school day during breakfast and lunch in the 2018-2019 school year. Moreover, Iowa’s K-12 students tossed nearly 30 million pounds of food and beverage waste in 2018-2019 (based on 180 day school year) with the majority of this ending up in the landfill.

The whitepaper details methodology, student impact, outcomes of assistance, and food and beverage waste data collected over the last five years. With the current situation created by the novel coronavirus pandemic, this whitepaper can be used as a guide for K-12 schools to calculate food and beverage waste rather than conducting actual waste sorts; which would be nearly impossible to conduct with social distancing and public health protocols.

You may download the whitepaper at

Cover of IWRC whitepaper, "Food Waste in Rural Schools"

Food Waste Curriculum from IL EPA, UI MSTE, Now Available Online

A previous guest post by Amanda Price described her experiences teaching a new food waste curriculum for fifth and sixth-graders developed by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Office for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education (MSTE). The curriculum is now available online. Visit to access the unit, an associated teacher guide, the material and supply list, student activity sheets, and other related resources.

Screenshot from the food waste unit on the Environmental Pathways web site.

Illinois EPA Pilots New Food Waste Curriculum in Springfield Schools

The following post was written by Amanda Price. We’re grateful to her for sharing her experiences teaching the new food waste curriculum to IL students and thrilled to hear about students inspired to take action! All photos are courtesy of Amanda Price.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) partnered with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign  Office for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education (MSTE) to create a two-week food waste curriculum unit for fifth and sixth-grade educators. The unit is aligned to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and will be free and available online at the end of May 2020. It will be housed with the first unit created by MSTE and Illinois EPA on surface water and algae on the Environmental Pathways website:

Classroom image of Amanda Price presenting food waste unit to elementary students seated at desksAmanda Price piloted the unit in two fifth grade science classes at Butler Elementary and Sandburg Elementary February-March 2020. Both schools are located in Springfield, IL. Amanda works as a Graduate Public Service Intern (GPSI) in the offices of Environmental Education and Community Relations at Illinois EPA. The GPSI program places University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) graduate students in state agency internships in for the duration of their studies. Amanda will earn a master’s degree in Environmental Sciences this May 2020. She taught the unit as part of her capstone graduate project.

The food waste unit follows the NGSS investigative storyline model that is Three boys gather around the jar they are working on and smile at the cameradriven by student questions. It teaches students the importance of food waste reduction, landfill diversion, and composting as part of a circular food system. Students create “landfills in a jar” with materials given to them with the goal of protecting the sand, or “groundwater,” at the bottom of the jar. Students also create “compost in a jar” using fresh food scraps and other compostable materials. Students monitor their jars throughout the unit and record scientific data such as temperature and mass. They learn how bacteria act as decomposers. The unit also incorporates map-reading and asks students to think critically about the pros and cons of choosing space for new landfill construction.

Elementary students sorting food waste in a school cafeteriaThe main hands-on activity in the unit is a food waste audit, which can be performed at various scales. Students use data from the audit to calculate the estimated food wasted per person, during the school year, etc. Students end the unit by creating a community awareness or action plan to inform their community or advocate for change. A few students at Butler Elementary wrote a letter to the principal asking him to install a clock in the cafeteria so students could track how much time they had to eat. The principal took swift action and ordered the clock.

Illinois EPA looks forward to sharing the free curriculum with both formal and informal educators around the state. The unit helps increase students’ environmental awareness and stewardship and is best paired with action to reduce waste in the school.

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.

Seven Generations Ahead Helps Oak Terrace School Achieve Ninety Percent Diversion

Seven Generations Ahead recently reported on assistance provided to Oak Terrace Elementary School in Highwood, IL as part of the Zero Waste Schools-Lake County Program. The dedicated students have helped their lunchroom achieve an approximate 90% diversion of materials from landfill.

Instead of tossing all lunch waste into the trash, students now use sorting stations with containers for liquids, recycling, compost (for all food scraps, food-soiled napkins, and lunch trays), and landfill trash. Their sorting stations also have share tables where students can put school lunch items (whole fruit and factory-sealed foods) they take but do not eat which can be used later as snacks.” Some specially trained students, designated “Zero Waste Agents” monitor cafeteria sorting stations to ensure materials are placed into appropriate bins and to reduce contamination of recycling and composting streams. Back-of-house sorting is also occurring and food service workers, custodial staff, and teachers have also been involved in training and hands-on contributions to waste reduction efforts.

To read more about this case study, see the project update on the Seven Generations Ahead 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