How Schools Can Fight Food Waste

It's time for schools to redirect their wasted free lunches to populations in need.

8 mins read

A version of this article was originally published in Granite Bay Today, the student newspaper of Granite Bay High School, in Granite Bay, CA.

From 11:09 AM to 1:07 PM, the number of lunch trays strewn across the campus of Granite Bay High School increases rapidly. Most of these trays are returned with the food practically untouched. 

Last year, California increased the budget for public schools by 30 percent, giving all 6.2 million students in the state’s school systems free lunches. The move came during the Covid-19 pandemic, which dramatically worsened food insecurity for American families and students.

Photo Credit: Eternity Martinez

The USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) initially administered the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) in response to the pandemic. However, the continuation of such programs in middle and low income communities is essential to the health and wellbeing of millions. 

At the peak of the pandemic, 53 million people in America relied on food banks and assistance programs in order to put something on the table for their families. As 2022 came to an end, vaccinations and immunity greatly reduced the number of Covid-19 patients. However, the number of people in dire need of donations and food still remain just as high. 

It is disheartening to see certain people in my own school district misuse a legislation that had a motive of giving aid to people in a time of need. Communities like Granite Bay should focus on limiting waste, and redirecting food to others who need it more. Fortunately, the 2022-2023 legislation gives all of those communities a chance to do just that. Free lunch and breakfast will be provided to all students regardless of whether they are eligible for a reduced meal program. 

Prior to the 2021 school year, in order to qualify for a free lunch under government guidelines, a family of four needed to have an income less than 34,000 dollars per year.  In an article by The New York Times it was specified that 59 percent of Californian households qualified for free lunches before 2021. However, families just above the benchmark still felt inadequately supported.  

Legislators cited that providing free lunch to all students also decreased stigma around needing free lunches: students no longer felt that their meal choices “singled out” their family’s incomes. 

In Granite Bay, one of the most affluent areas in California, some think this move has done more harm than good. Granite Bay High School food service worker Shalene Tirone has noticed the impact it has had on the school’s menu. 

“There are not as many people working anymore, and we also had to go from making about 350 lunches daily to over 1000,” she  said. “students don’t have a variety to choose from anymore. They really only have two meals to choose from each day.” 

Administrators, lunch service workers, and students have also noticed an increase in food waste. Brandon Dolan, a senior at GBHS, recognizes the efforts of the staff and sympathizes with them. 

“It’s disappointing to see people disrespecting the lunches that the faculty puts in effort to provide for us,” Dolan said.

Dolan believes that the main reason students are discarding their lunches is because they are bored by the options being offered, like burritos and deli sandwiches. Ultimately, he doesn’t think they’re worth it.

“This may seem harsh, but I think our school in particular should simply get rid of free lunches. I walk around the hallways and just see boxes of food that have barely been touched,” Dolan said. 

Other students like sophomore Sabine Kanz see the benefits of free lunches despite the negatives. 

“I think free lunch is an encouraging way for kids to eat food. Although there are many kids that don’t necessarily eat everything, we can not ignore the kids that might have issues going on at home and can’t pack a home lunch,” Kanz said. 

Kanz said she can be forgetful, so free lunches keep her full throughout the day if she forgets to bring food from home. She thinks there are other ways to keep free lunch at school while reducing waste.

“I share the food that I don’t want with my friends. Afterwards, I recycle what needs to be recycled, and throw away the remaining things,” Kanz said. “Oftentimes the recycling bin is a few steps away, but people are just too lazy. It is the same reason they leave their lunches anywhere.” 

Kanz mentioned the different methods of disposing of unwanted food and lunch, however, if a person is simply aware of what goes on their tray, there is no reason to throw anything away. 

Photo Credit: Saihaj Cheema

Assistant principal Lisa Stanley has worked with the students of GBHS to prevent food waste. One program she implemented was a plastic donation box where students could discard food that they did not want. Initially, it did not seem like the box would work, but as time went on, the box began to fill. It soon overflowed.

“We tried to get the food into the right locations so that individuals could utilize it, and it could be accessible to those people,”  Stanley said. “The downside to that was it was actually almost too successful for a single person to manage.” 

Although the redistribution of food throughout the district became too cumbersome for her small administrative team, Stanley pushes students of GBHS to help discourage food waste. 

It is crucial for schools such as GBHS to take initiative and center their attention on ways to utilize their resources positively. 

“I would certainly welcome any groups or clubs that want to help redirect these non-perishable items towards people that need them,” Stanley said. 

 Last year, a few groups of kids expressed their concerns regarding food waste, and this year it is more necessary than ever for individuals to speak out and help their community. Administrators and students, especially in high income areas, should use this legislation as an opportunity to reverse the culture of waste rather than feed into it. 

A slight shift in consciousness could turn the enormous amounts of food waste in schools into direct donations to communities in need.         

“Small changes make a tremendous impact,” Stanley said. 

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