K-12 and Wasted Food: Innovations from the Heartland

This blog was co-authored by JoAnne Berkenkamp and consultant Jonathan Bloom.

Minneapolis Public Schools are taking action to save money and protect the environment by reducing food waste in their lunchrooms and cafeteria. The school district today released a new “True Food, No Waste” action plan for curtailing wasted food in school cafeterias and kitchens.

When food goes to waste, so does everything it takes to get it to our plates. The environmental impacts are staggering—from massive amounts of water and farm land, to unnecessary climate pollution. At the same time, 40 million people in the country don’t have a steady supply of food to their tables.

Developed in concert with NRDC and consultant Jonathan Bloom, the district’s plan offers an innovative model for schools around the country to follow.  It also highlights an important area of opportunity for city governments as they commit to tackling wasted food in their communities.

Three motivations catalyzed the district’s interest in taking this action: providing kids with the most nutritious foods possible, being good stewards of their budget, and adopting environmentally sustainable foodservice practices. The new “True Food, No Waste” plan caps off a commitment started in 2012 to revolutionize foodservice in the Minneapolis Public Schools. 

Having started with a 1970’s style centralized kitchen that sent packaged food to schools for re-heating, the district has become fanatical about serving students fresh food prepared in on-site kitchens. MPS has renovated nearly half of its school kitchens and pledged to have on-site cooking at all schools by 2025. The district has expanded salad bars, ramped up sourcing of Minnesota-grown food, launched a chef advisory council, and banished foods with high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, artificial colors, or preservatives from the menu.

Now MPS’ new food waste plan charts out a three-year strategy for making sure that good food doesn't go to waste. It follows the EPA Food Waste Reduction hierarchy, starting with practical strategies for avoiding surplus foods in the first place. That includes more food sampling so students can try entrees before taking them, developing a new district-wide student committee on food waste prevention, a campaign to raise student awareness, and a variety of updates to foodservice planning, prep, and serving practices.

The second component is ensuring that surplus foods reach those in need—starting with students themselves. Like many urban school districts, about two-thirds of Minneapolis students qualify for free and reduced meals and the need to address food insecurity in the community is palpable.  

Share tables, where students can return items like milk or bananas that they haven’t opened, can be a great way for kids to leave behind or pick up extra food. However, current estimates suggest that only 1 percent of public schools in the U.S. have share tables in place. The school district will also partner with local non-profit partners to ensure that other surplus foods reach community members in need.  

Lastly, the plan recognizes that there will always be food scraps to deal with. MPS aims to compost its food scraps rather than sending them to an incinerator or landfill. About half of MPS schools currently compost some of their food waste. Now MPS is committed to involving all schools, standardizing its composting practices, and more actively engaging students. Receipt of a $50,000 recycling grant and arrival of a Minnesota GreenCorps member will help fuel these efforts.

While cutting wasted food isn’t easy, there are many practical steps schools can take. Check out NRDC’s new best practices guide for K-12 schools to find ideas for getting started.  

There are roughly 50 million children in America’s public schools and every school meal is an opportunity to engage kids and model best practices. With support from superintendents, parents, teachers, foodservice staff, and city government, all of our schools and school kids can become food waste warriors.

About the Authors

JoAnne Berkenkamp

Senior Advocate, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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