Boulder Valley School District

School cafeterias reduce food waste with technology and new partnerships

students measuring waste in cafeteria
Carolyn Nohe

Every year, nearly 40% of the food produced in the US is wasted. Unfortunately, school cafeterias are also not immune to food waste, which is why BVSD Food Services decided to use technology and partnerships with like-minded organizations to reduce waste in BVSD cafeterias. 

Using Technology to Curb Food Waste

BVSD Food Services decided to measure the problem of food waste in their cafeterias with the goal of changing behavior. To start, Food Services installed LeanPath food waste tracking systems in the three production kitchens and two school kitchens to weigh how much and what type of foods go unused in the preparation process. At Casey, Columbine, Centennial, Douglass and Fireside, LeanPath scales were installed in the cafeterias to show real-time post-consumer data from the compost bin, as students discard their leftover lunch items.

Since embarking on the LeanPath program two years ago, 72,836 lpounds of waste have been tracked—the equivalent of six elephants! This discarded food also represents 87,403 uneaten meals and a waste of 29,207,236 gallons of water used to produce it. 

But with measurement comes awareness, and improvements have already been seen around the district. Since launching their post-consumer waste prevention program, Columbine Elementary has seen a 28% reduction in waste weight in their cafeteria. On the pre-consumer side, the production kitchen at Monarch High School has decreased its waste in preparing the foods for the cafeterias by 23% or 3,023 pounds. 

World Wildlife Fund Food Waste Warriors Program

Several schools in BVSD last year joined other districts across the country to implement the Food Waste Warriors program over the course of six months. While results varied nationwide, in Boulder, an average of 55,508 pounds of food waste per school per year was found, which broke down to 42.9 pounds per student. 

This was one of the largest studies on plate waste in school cafeterias to date. But the program didn't only measure 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, World Wildlife Fund senior director of food loss and waste. “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.”

What You Can Do

The School Food Project is proud to lead the way to prevent food waste in schools and is working to continue to educate BVSD students and staff about this critical environmental issue. Parents and families can bring the conversation and effort into their home to reduce their own food waste. Currently, a typical household of four tosses out about $1,600 worth of food annually.  Here are a few tips for reducing food waste in your own home, adapted from NPR’s Life Kit series:

1. Make a plan

Before you shop for groceries, think about exactly what you need for the week, make a list — and then stick to it. Because let's be honest, many of us are "aspirational shoppers" — we throw things in the cart that sound good or look novel, and then we let them sit in the back of the fridge for a few weeks. Buy what you know you’ll use and less will be wasted.

2. Get creative with repurposing food

Before walking straight to the trash with your soggy spinach or old carrots, ask yourself: Can I make this into something new?

Here are some favorite hacks for wilted greens:

  • Saute them with some of your favorite spices, a little bit of onion and garlic.

  • Throw them in for some flavor in a soup or a sauce. 

  • Putting mildly wilted greens in ice water may help perk them up.

Fruit and veggie stalks and stems (like from broccoli) often hold just as much nutrition and flavor as the rest of the food you eat. Roast them as a side or shave them for a salad. Also, leaves (like carrot tops) make for great pesto.

3. Your freezer is your friend

If you realize that you won't be able to use food before it's too late, turn to the trusty freezer. Did you know you can freeze almost anything? Your bread, your grains, your fruits, your veggies — even your milk! Freezing food helps lock in its flavor and nutrients, so the next time you find those perfect strawberries for your summer picnic, don't toss the leftovers. Bag it, date it and put in the freezer for when that craving hits. If you want to know how long something lasts once you freeze it, this app and online database from the USDA are both good resources.

4. Don't be fooled by that "sell by" date

For the most part, these labels are a best guess by manufacturers as to when their products will be freshest. They're not hard-and-fast rules about when that cheese has to go straight to the trash.

And yet, that's exactly what many of us do. It's estimated that about 20% of the food waste in the U.S. can be attributed to "sell by" labels. In fact, this has become such a big issue that the Food and Drug Administration is urging the food industry to change its packaging language to help consumers understand that these labels are about quality, not about food safety.

The next time you do a sweep of your pantry, remember that these dates are guidelines, not mandates. When in doubt, do a smell test. If it doesn't pass, it's time to move on to our next tip.

5. Compost, compost, compost

Composting is simple. Think of it as a way of recycling your food scraps. Instead of tossing your food waste into landfills and contributing to the greenhouse gas problem, your decomposing food helps to create nutrient-rich soils and prevent the release of methane.

Your compost-ready food scraps can be contained in your freezer, and then you can discard them at a compost collection site. Some cities have designated areas; others will come and collect from the curb; others might have collection areas at farmers' markets.



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