Do Your Part: Reduce Waste in School Lunches

In the past, school lunches have received a slew of criticism, ranging from the not-so-nice to the downright disparaging. And usually, it’s been about food. You know, the fattening, sodium-loaded, un-environmental kind? Yeah, that. But this time, cafeterias are picking up bad reviews for another reason. A reason, dear readers, that’s right up our alley. Yes, I’m talking about the environment. And yes, we in fact do have the power to help reduce school cafeteria waste.

But first, some facts for the disbelievers.

Did you know that in 2005, New York’s Department of Environment Conservation estimated that a single student produces about 45 to 90 pounds of trash per year in disposable lunches? More recent studies have pegged the number at about 67 pounds per school-age child. That means the average American elementary school produces about 18,760 pounds of lunch waste in a single year. Something to consider.

And where does that trash come from? Uneaten food, of course. Picked-at oranges and nibbled pizza crusts. But that’s not the root of the issue. Walk into the average school cafeteria, and you’ll see trashcans stacked sky high with styrofoam trays, plastic baggies, and empty bottles. Odds are you’ll also see a display of packaged salads and saran-wrapped sandwiches.

There are many forces at work here, and at many different levels too. For one, let’s consider the mass of individually packaged foods geared at the bring-your-own-lunch crowd. (Cheese sticks, anyone?) Some say we can’t take on corporations, but we should give ourselves a bit more credit. Consumers, once there’s a sizeable group of them, have weight in the economic market and can influence company decisions. Firms don’t want to alienate customers, nor do they want to make unappealing products. The trick is finding enough consumers. Which brings me to the next level: parents.

In the case of elementary-schoolers (and let’s be honest here, some middle- and high-schoolers too), the parents are the ones packing the lunches. That also means they’re also the ones deciding whether those lunches are going to be eco-friendly or not. Let’s look past food for a second. (Though eating local and organic is always encouraged!) Parents can pack sustainably, or they can pack unsustainably. They can choose to use reusable lunch boxes and drink containers, or they can fritter away single-use brown bags and bottled waters. Or they can take the completely lackadaisical route, and make a lunch out of a pre-packaged meal and a bag of chips. Their choice. But their choice has far-reaching implications. The crux of the matter is, parents can reduce waste in a big way just by making eco-friendly picks.

And then there are the schools. For all their claims that they’re working with us, they’re surprisingly ornery sometimes. Some school cafeterias don’t even have recycle bins, or, alternately, enough recycle bins. Imagine that. All those plastic bottles piled in the trashcans could be recycled. Maybe we could even think in a more philosophical vein, and say that by expanding their recycling programs, schools could teach our children (AKA our future) about sustainable living. Just a thought.

So, before you go off inspiring others to revamp their cabinets and refrigerators, there’s something you can do now. has started a petition for “waste-free school lunch policies in cafeterias nationwide” that you can sign right here. Because even if you don’t go to school, even if you don’t have kids, cafeteria waste becomes a part of your life. 

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