America’s school lunch programs reportedly waste $5 million of food every day, according to research by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. Let that sink in. What can be done? What is possible for a school district to do?
Nancy Deming, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD)’s sustainability manager for custodial and nutritional services, has standardized several solutions to the enormous food waste problem, including the practice of using share tables at every school, something only a small handful of the nation’s schools are doing. Excess food from OUSD also goes to homeless shelters and compost bins.
Jonathan Bloom, journalist and author of the book “American Wasteland” and the blog Wasted Food writes: “The district has arguably done more than any other in the country to minimize excess food, redistribute edible leftovers to people in need and compost the inevitable inedibles.”
Here’s how Oakland schools is making it happen.
Share tables: Pay attention to detail and make them a focal point
Share tables, where one student can place a piece of whole fruit or packaged lunch item and another student can take it, have been a thing in Oakland schools for decades. But there was no formal set of rules for students leaving uneaten food on a communal table to share with other students during lunch.
When Deming first started, “I would go into elementary schools and notice the table in the corner or off to the side. ‘That’s where students put their fruit, and it’s our share table,’ they would tell me, and I was like, ‘This is great, let’s build on this to make sure it’s getting used.’”
“As I would go to more schools, I would see a couple pears on a table and look into waste bins and see a whole slew of whole, untouched fruits,” Deming continues. “Most kids weren’t practicing [the share table].”
So Deming wrote a formalized checklist for share tables and put it into practice in 80 Oakland schools serving 40,000 students. The checklist states that clear plastic tubs should be used rather than less-hygienic baskets or milk crates (which are hard to clean and also obscure the view of the food) or placing fruit directly on a bare tabletop, which is also hard to keep clean.
“We set up sorting bins and stations in the cafeterias and food share was built into the station and then we developed signage so that this is ideally the first spot that students see, and we encourage them to use it,” she says.
Only USDA food is allowed on share tables. “We had one school where kids were placing any items from home on the food share table, and we were like, ‘No, no, no.’ They were thinking that a packaged item like a granola bar would be fine, but it’s only federally regulated food we can use. Otherwise, it’s too much of a gray area.”
Share tables also mean sharing your information with the local health department.
“The biggest issue is fruit with an edible peel and getting that approved [for share tables] by the health department,” Deming says. “We’ve had issues where, say I go through the meal line and get a milk and a packaged entrée. That has packaging. But with an apple, it’s not in packaging and that’s where the health department comes in.”
Recently at one Oakland school, “we were cited for having plums on the share table,” because of a health department employee “not being in the loop” regarding the standards the district had previously worked out, Deming says. “Their biggest concern is norovirus. But if a school had case of norovirus, the share table goes on hold.”
Some schools are currently working on individual plans for washing fruit with edible peels when possible, but Deming doubts that could be practical in the long run.
“They want the edible peel washed and I’m like, ‘OK, I get that, but do you know of a school district that’s been able to manage that?’”
Difficult intersections like this are where a team effort can save a sustainability program like this from being scrapped.
Getting cooperation for share tables between the foodservice team, the custodial staff and the sustainability stakeholders is important, something Deming solves with communication.
“It’s department procedure and it works a lot better if we’re all on the same page,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Who’s in charge of it?’ In the State of California, the Department of Education decided that it should be the foodservice department. And it’s to their benefit anyway and they should own that.”
Deming is referring to the data that share tables allow to be collected, which can help the department make future ordering decisions, for example.
“They can have a better understanding of what the kids aren’t eating,” she says. “I try to emphasize to directors that the food share gives them information back. They can make adjustments and it can be a monetary gain. The phrase ‘win-win’ gets used too much, but this is a win-win-win.”
Take it and go
In addition to the share tables, another unusual-in-K-12 practice at Oakland schools is the Take It & Go initiative, which allows kids to take unfinished fruit out to recess after lunch and finish it there. The only items allowed are fruits and vegetables and the grain item from that day; nothing that requires a fork or a dressing (salad) is allowed.
“We brought in the custodial department to get their buy-in,” Deming says. “Because they are impacted by this. We say, ‘Remember, we want the kids to eat.’ And then they start thinking, ‘OK, I’m going to have a couple bins by this bench area outside…’ and they start to get creative with it.”
Sharing with the community
With approval from the USDA to donate excess and uneaten food to shelters and protection of state Good Samaritan laws, “it’s possible,” Deming says. “Some states, like California, have legislation to reinforce that idea.”
Still, to do something like this, school districts must involve the health department to get the go-ahead to donate surplus food. The health department will look at things like cooked vs. uncooked food, temperatures, packaging, whole fruit requirements and more.
“We’ve been working for the past couple of years to fine-tune what our procedure looks like from the kitchen to the food share table,” Deming says, adding that over time, best practices have emerged. To find out more specifics from Deming and see her share table playbook, visit her online resource devoted to helping school food professionals, K-12 School Food Recovery Roadmap.