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