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School Lunch Sharing Challenged

coloured school chairs and tables

School lunch sharing appears to be the perfect way to tackle food waste in US schools.

But in some states, bizarrely, local authorities are trying to get the initiatives shut down.

A food waste concept

The idea of the sharing table – or box, or crate, or tub – could be a proactive way to tackle food waste in US schools.

apples in a crate

The University of Arkansas, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Fayetteville public middle school Green Team worked together on a student food waste audit to see what was being left uneaten at the end of the lunch period. They found that some students were leaving whole items untouched, while others were having just a little bit of everything. Still others were eating everything on their tray and then leaving the lunch hall still hungry.

In order to reduce food waste and keep students more satisfied, they came up with the share table. Students are encouraged to drop off items which have not been touched or opened – pieces of fruit, milk cartons, still-wrapped sandwiches, and more. Other students or staff members can then come and pick up whatever they want from the table, for free.

The USDA has been encouraging school lunch programs across the USA to adopt this approach. But surprisingly, there has also been pushback from those in top food jobs.

Arguments from authorities

The Connecticut Department of Education this year sent out a memo to schools stating that the idea of the school lunch program is to provide reimbursable and nutritious meals. As a result, they have severely restricted the items that are allowed to stay on the sharing tables, making them much more difficult to run.

But the National School Lunch Program’s budget should not be affected by the sharing table, as the DOE implies. Instead, it’s a way to prevent usable food from being thrown away when others would be happy to eat it.

In North Carolina, similar restrictions have been even more extreme. At East Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, a program has come to an absolute standstill thanks to new rules. Children aren’t allowed to share fruits, vegetables, rolls, cookies, trail mixes, hard-boiled eggs, melons, tomatoes, leafy greens, and unopened milk cartons. But the program previously saw that more than one-third of the unwanted items were milk cartons – meaning that many of them will be thrown away unopened.

“As of right now, we’ve gone from collecting 4,650 items to zero, because the list of items that we’re allowed to collect is tiny,” said Hannah Wondmagegn, a sophomore who organised the program. She is also starting her food career early, as the national director of student leadership for Food Rescue, a non-profit.

“Local health and safety codes may operate to limit what can be shared in this format,” says Nicole Civita, director of the Food Recovery Project at the University of Arkansas School of Law, “but hopefully regulators at the state and local levels will be guided by common sense instead of hyper-technical interpretations of rules designed for other types of food commerce and exchange.”

Share tables make a lot of sense in all ways. They put food, which has already been paid for, to good use rather than allowing it to be wasted. They prevent kids from going hungry – which is especially important in poor areas, where children may not be getting enough to eat at home.

It also helps students to understand that food waste is not something to be ignored. Starting this initiative at a young age means that they will be more likely to share food later in life.