FAIR SHARE A student places food on a share table. What is not taken by other students will be reused or donated.
RICARDO RAMIREZ BUXEDA—ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS/GETTY IMAGES

Each weekday, more than 30 million students in the United States eat meals served in school cafeterias. And when lunch is over, they fill the trash cans with uneaten food.

Half-eaten apples, chicken tenders, and turkey sandwiches come at a cost. That’s why schools are trying to reduce the amount of food that gets thrown away. “We don’t want good food to go to waste,” Nancy Deming told TIME for Kids. She’s the sustainability manager for the Oakland Unified School District, in California.

A BETTER LUNCH A student in Massachusetts shows off her meal from the Chefs in Schools program.

HEATHER KATSOULIS COURTESY PROJECT BREAD

More than $1 billion worth of food is wasted every year. That’s according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Wasted food is wasted money. It’s also a missed opportunity to feed hungry people. And it’s bad for the environment: Farming, packaging, and transporting food produces greenhouse-gas emissions. They pollute the air. Plus, food packaging often ends up in a landfill.

Fighting Food Waste

Schools have developed strategies to cut back on waste. Students are often hungrier after playing. Scheduling lunch after recess can reduce the amount of food that’s wasted by 30%, according to the USDA. Making lunch period longer also helps. It gives kids time to eat everything on their tray.

Many schools follow government rules that say students must take a certain number of healthy items at mealtime. Those rules help kids get a balanced meal. But they can lead to more waste.

SHARING IS CARING This share table in Oakland, California, has instructions for sorting food.

COURTESY NANCY DEMING

That’s why Oakland schools set up something called share tables. Students put untouched food on the table. A student who wants the food can take it. There are rules to make sure the food is safe.

Food that isn’t taken from the table is served another day. If the food can’t be used at school, it’s donated to charity. Food scraps are turned into compost. “It’s about recognizing that food has value,” Deming says.

YUM! A cook in Oakland prepares a recipe for spicy chicken flatbread. The recipe was developed to reduce waste.

PROJECT BREAD

Taste Test

Students also waste food because they don’t like how it tastes. Chef Sam Icklan wants to change that. He works with a program in Massachusetts called Chefs in Schools. He helps cafeteria staff develop recipes kids enjoy.

In one school, kale often went uneaten. Then Icklan made a recipe for pizza topped with kale, zucchini, and spinach. He called it Green Monster Pizza. Students loved it. “It became this beautiful, vibrant dish that was delicious and packed with vegetables,” Icklan says. “Who wouldn’t eat that?”

Sidebar: Join the Fight

You can fight food waste too. At the grocery store, look for “ugly” produce. Fruits and vegetables with irregular shapes are still tasty, but they are often overlooked. At home, read safety labels. If a label says “best before,” the food is still safe to eat for a little while after that date. (If the label says “use by,” the food is no longer safe after the date.) At mealtime, start with small portions. If you’re still hungry, you can take more later. And when you don’t eat food, don’t throw it out. Turn it into compost!

Stop & Think! What makes this story important? Why do you think the author chose to write it? After reading this story, are you more concerned about food waste? Why or why not?