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Plate Waste in US Cafeterias Could Total 530,000 Tons per Year

Significant Reductions Possible with Student Education and Empowerment, says WWF Report


World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released Food Waste Warriors: A Deep Dive Into Food Waste in US Schools. The report, which gathered information from WWF’s Food Waste Warriors education program, analyzed post-service food waste in 46 schools in nine U.S. cities across eight states. Based on the results from this sample, food waste in schools could amount to an estimated 530,000 tons per year, costing as much as $9.7M per day or $1.7B every school year.

With support from The Kroger Co. Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 4 (Southeast), WWF implemented the Food Waste Warriors program in Atlanta, Boulder, Cincinnati, Columbus, Indianapolis, Nashville, Phoenix, Portland, and Seattle over the course of six months. In one of the largest studies on plate waste in school cafeterias to date, the program not only measured food and milk winding up in the trash, it also armed students with an understanding of the connections between food, waste, and the environment, while empowering them to brainstorm how to begin to reduce that waste.

“Producing food has a tremendous impact on our planet and biodiversity, but the plate-to-planet connection is not always made,” said Pete Pearson, senior director food loss and waste, World Wildlife Fund. “By raising awareness on the issue of waste and engaging champions in our schools, we can inspire the next generation of students to tackle the global food waste challenge.”

While results varied, participating schools on average produced approximately 39.2 pounds of food waste and 19.4 cartons of milk waste per student per year. Throughout the short four-to-six-week audit period, all participating schools saw reductions in their food waste -- on average 3% from first to last audit -- just by measuring what was going in the trash. Elementary schools showed even more promise, averaging a 14.5% reduction, with the top three performing schools reducing food waste by an average of 53%.

“The Kroger Co. Foundation is passionate about empowering communities and creating Zero Hunger | Zero Waste communities, and we are immensely proud to invest in and support World Wildlife Fund’s Food Waste Warriors education program,” said Sunny Reelhorn Parr, director of The Kroger Co. Foundation. “The report’s data and insights are invaluable and deepen our belief that it is essential to educate students about responsible food practices to prevent food waste, in both lunchrooms and homes. World Wildlife Fund is a trusted partner in our Zero Hunger | Zero Waste journey, and we look forward to continuing our work together to incrementally transform schools, households and communities across the country.”

While this study is not a statistically representative sample of the more than 100,000 schools participating in the National School Lunch Program, the Food Waste Warriors project was able to garner immediate engagement and see measured food waste reduction, providing a baseline for what is possible nationwide. If schools across the country were able to replicate the results of the study and reduce food waste by a mere 3%, it could deliver a potential savings of $52M per year, funding which could be reinvested into nationwide nutrition and lunchroom programs.

The idea of regularly auditing school cafeterias gained momentum in 2017 when the USDA and EPA published the Guide to Conducting Student Food Waste Audits, a project led by Melissa Terry from the University of Arkansas. “Cafeterias are classrooms, where our kids can learn about healthy food choices,” said Terry. “The potential for students to actively engage in food system-based conservation education is a huge opportunity for our children, our farmers, nutrition educators, and school administrators.”

Not all solutions will work for all schools, but most can find opportunities to reduce food waste if they start to measure and understand the issue in their environment, while educating and empowering students at the same time.

“It starts with better data,” said Pearson. “Imagine if every school consistently measured waste? Openly sharing this data and investing in food waste prevention in U.S. schools provides a scalable solution to keep food out of landfills, improve nutrition and rekindle my grandparents’ zero waste food ethic we desperately need.”

About World Wildlife Fund (WWF)

WWF is one of the world’s leading conservation organizations, working in 100 countries for over half a century. With the support of almost 5 million members worldwide, WWF is dedicated to delivering science-based solutions to preserve the diversity and abundance of life on Earth, halt the degradation of the environment and combat climate change. Visit to learn more and follow our news conversations on Twitter @WWFNews.

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