The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 40 percent of the food supply in the United States is wasted. That’s right. Nearly half of all perfectly edible food in our country ends up rotting in a landfill. It’s a soul-rattling figure.
Consider that alongside data from a 2013 Harvard study showing that American schools waste more than $1 billion in food per year, and one can start to wonder, “What’s happening? Who’s in charge here?”
Indeed, the questions persist: In a country where 50 million people are considered food-insecure, why are schools throwing away truckloads of good food? The answer, of course, is complex, wrapped up in a mire of budgetary concerns, complicated state policies and legal red tape. And yet, in the face of these challenges, some food waste warriors have emerged in Western North Carolina’s school nutrition programs.
All in the numbers
Perhaps the first step in the fight against cafeteria food waste is working to reduce the amount of food that’s actually thrown away each day.
“Our plan to reduce food waste is just constant,” says Janette Broda, nutrition director for Asheville City Schools. That plan involves closely monitoring what menu items students are eating and what they’re not eating. “It’s all about determining student preference and keeping up with the trends, all of which are constantly changing,” she says.
Although ACS students are not required to take everything on the serving line, they are required to take a fruit or a vegetable to pair with their meal. “Determining what fruits or vegetables these kids are going to eat or are accustomed to eating and how we can make those look appealing to them is another way we strive to minimize waste,” Broda adds.
ACS also limits thrown-away food by projecting meal counts every day. “We use a variety of different meal count systems in each school where students are telling us what they’re eating or if they’re not eating, which entrees they are eating and which ones they’re not,” Broda says. “We are already projecting our menu numbers very well.”
Buncombe County Schools takes a similar waste-minimizing approach in its daily meal preparations. All cafeteria managers are trained annually on forecasting meals based on student preference using standardized recipes and batch cooking — all techniques that greatly minimize the amount of food thrown away each day, says Stacia Harris, director of communications for Buncombe County Schools, via email.
Some smaller charter schools are able to take an altogether different strategy to combat food waste. FernLeaf Community Charter School in Fletcher maintains a zero food waste policy school officials call “pack it out, pack it in.” Students at FernLeaf are required to pack their lunches each day as FernLeaf does not serve lunch. All uneaten food and individual wrappers go back into the students’ lunchboxes each day. “It’s dual-functioning, “ says Karie Martin, administrative assistant at FernLeaf. “It minimizes the waste we see here at school but helps our parents see, ‘Oh, my kid’s not eating half of their lunch,’” she adds.
FernLeaf also encourages families to pack foods in reusable containers and packaging. “After weeks of seeing disposable yogurt cups, juice boxes and sandwich bags [come home in lunch boxes], it hopefully makes people more aware of what they’re throwing away,” Martin says.
Evergreen Community Charter School in Haw Creek also maintains a waste-free school lunch policy. Like FernLeaf, students are required to bring their own lunches to school. Around Earth Day every year, the school holds waste-free lunch challenges across the grade levels. “We’ll save all of the nonfood items and weigh the trash,” says Marin Leroy, environmental education coordinator at Evergreen. “Classrooms that use the most reusable containers usually win that challenge.”
However attractive the concept, waste-free lunchroom policies are really only feasible for small-scale charter and private schools. Many local public schools feed hundreds of students breakfast and lunch every day, and the truth is that too much good food is still being thrown away. In addition to making efforts to reduce cafeteria food waste, some school nutrition programs are launching composting initiatives to keep food that is thrown away out of landfills.
Amanda Jones, child nutrition supervisor at Henderson County Schools, has recognized the need for additional strategies to minimize thrown-away food. “We’re one of the largest producers of food in Henderson County, and with that comes waste,” says Jones.
This month, HCS begins a pilot program at Dana Elementary in Hendersonville where students will start composting their leftover lunch scraps, as well as their trays and utensils. The effort is a partnership with Spartanburg, S.C., composting company Atlas Organics, with financial backing from the county’s Henderson Recycles program.
The pilot program at Dana, which is one of the largest schools in Henderson County, will allow school nutrition officials to collect valuable data needed to determine how much food is actually being disposed of and help calculate how much money is actually saved through composting. “This will also help as we continually strive to better our food prep system and better the situation overall,” Jones says.
“When we look at edible portions and how much students are eating and how much they’re throwing away, it will help with our food costs as well,” she adds. “This will be a great backbone for adding this program to other elementary schools as well as the high schools”
One reason composting is such a powerful strategy in the war on food waste is that it keeps decomposable edible items out of landfills — something that has a devastating environmental impact. Food Rescue, an Indiana nonprofit, reports that 16 percent of all methane gas originates from food decomposing in landfills. Methane, which is one of the primary greenhouse gases, is estimated to be at least 28 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide.
It’s clear that composting school cafeteria food waste is beneficial environmentally and perhaps even financially. However, other local school districts are struggling to turn individual composting programs into districtwide policy.
Although almost all of the elementary schools in the Asheville City Schools district are already composting, the practice hasn’t carried over to the many of the middle schools or to Asheville High. “Because the responsibility of composting rests solely with the school, we don’t have any way to really enforce it,” says Broda.
Right now, the only way the schools can implement composting programs is through a representative at the school who coordinates efforts to compost with a local composting company or organization like Asheville GreenWorks. And because there’s no districtwide policy, maintaining the programs is a challenge. “We just don’t have the labor to support it,” she says.
Reduce, reuse and rescue
Another method of keeping school food waste out of landfills is through food rescue, whereby edible items that would otherwise be trashed are redistributed to emergency food programs. One such nonprofit in WNC, Food Connection, is already rescuing and redistributing food from local restaurants to families in need. The group also salvages many thousands of pounds of high-quality, nutritious food each year from the dining halls at UNC Asheville, a practice that has yet to carry over into any of the local public schools.
“It’s not for lack of interest,” says Kiera Bulan, coordinator for the Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council. “But due largely to the overwhelming barriers of current systems overlaid with the already stretched-thin budgets and capacities of folks working within the schools, there is nothing happening in terms of comprehensive food waste recovery initiatives in our schools.”
The struggle to integrate food waste recovery programs in WNC public schools is one shared by school systems across the state. Although it’s based in Indiana, Food Rescue helps schools all over the country develop these initiatives.
In 2016, Hanna Wondmagegn, a Charlotte-area high school student, started a Food Rescue program at East Mecklenburg High School. She spoke at school board meetings and even delivered a TED Talk on the subject of food waste, Food Rescue reports. However, when she began seeking both district and statewide food waste policy change, the N.C. Division of Public Health issued a memo impeding her mission. The memo clarified that “only unserved food can be donated” and any food that has come into contact with a customer — even items such as unopened milk and juice boxes — “cannot be donated.”
“Ultimately, it’s up to the schools to decide what they feel comfortable donating,” Scott Coleman, N.C. Division of Public Health communication manager, told Xpress via email. However, recommendations from the division echo the contents of the 2016 memo.
Recently, the Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council started participating in brainstorming sessions with food waste networks across the state. The council is involved “mainly just to listen and learn about what others have had success with,” says Bulan. Currently, the goal is to identify the policy and regulatory barriers that surround the issue. “We just want to see if there are any entry-level interventions we might be able to get some community interest around.”
It’s going to require a lot to “crack the code of school food waste barriers here in Buncombe County,” she adds. Still, it’s a start, and perhaps with the added benefit of community involvement, schools can start maximizing resources to keep food on the plate and out of the landfill.