Students at King Middle School who recently sought to find out how much food isn’t being eaten in their cafeteria learned that even with efforts in place to reduce waste, a lot is still being thrown out.

Thirty-four percent of the food on students’ lunch trays isn’t consumed, according to research they did analyzing the weight of the trays before and after students were done eating.

That number is not unique to King. Between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply in the United States gets wasted every year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Whether through food waste audits, legislation or the increasing use of food waste separation systems, schools in Maine are among those working to lower that number.

Diverting food from landfills helps cut down on the production of methane, a greenhouse gas and contributor to climate change.

Composting is better, though sustainability experts say the best way to cut down on waste is to produce and prepare less and to feed hungry people and animals before looking to dispose of unwanted food.

The Maine Department of Education doesn’t track food waste in schools, but the Natural Resources Council of Maine estimates K-12 schools in the state may be wasting more than 7 million pounds of food each year.

A student sorts his lunch items Wednesday while clearing his tray at the end of a lunch period at King Middle School in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“In the cafeteria, the default is to send things into the trash or to the landfill, so it’s a problem in schools as well as everywhere,” said Chrissy Adamowicz, Sustainable Maine outreach coordinator for the council.

“The challenge schools face and that a lot of places face setting up (waste separation) stations is making sure the messaging is clear and the student body can effectively manage waste in a time-efficient manner.”

Students at King seem to have their five-part waste separation system down to a science. Their cafeteria sorts unwanted food into five categories that will determine where it ends up. The categories include a “share table” where students can leave good food they don’t plan on eating for others, as well as separate receptacles for liquids, recyclables, trash and compost.

The system relies on voluntary “compost guardians” who help their fellow students sort their leftovers at the end of a lunch period.

Eighth-graders Shamus Colson and Ezekial Iraoya took on the task on a recent afternoon, pulling on plastic gloves and standing in the middle of the two lines of trash cans that make up the waste separation system.

“It helps protect the environment,” said Colson, who isn’t grossed out by the job and enjoys it.

King Middle School seventh-graders Neema Bizimana, left, and Chrisanne Keza sort their clear their trays at the end of a lunch period on Wednesday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Staff in the cafeteria estimate that since they started the system, they’ve gone from generating more than a dozen 40-gallon bags of trash per day to two.

Waste separation systems like the one at King are becoming more common in Maine schools, Adamowicz said, though many schools are still perfecting and learning from them.

When the seventh-graders at King did their study this winter, they picked up on the fact that a lot of what makes up the trash is plastic cutlery. As a result, they’ve started a push to explore the use of silverware. Portland Public Schools is currently running a silverware pilot program at two schools, Ocean Avenue School and Rowe Elementary.

Students also said waste could be further reduced if they had more say over what they get to eat.

Federal guidelines currently require students to take a fruit or vegetable with each entree, although new regulations proposed last month seek to offer schools more flexibility with types of vegetables and the ability to offer entrees à la carte. That potential change, however, has also opened the door to concerns that more freedom could mean less healthy food being served.

The King students found that, on average, 22 percent of entrees are wasted, along with 60 percent of fruit served and 28 percent of vegetables.

“We’re required to take a vegetable or fruit, and most kids take a fruit because it’s usually an apple or orange, and they’re easier to throw away,” said Kevin Thomas, a seventh-grader.

Izaki Wampeti, a seventh-grader at King Middle School in Portland, helps students sort their lunch items at the end of a lunch period at the school on Wednesday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The audit the King students conducted is one example of the work going on in Maine schools, and nationally, to reduce food waste.

The University of Southern Maine has also been working on the effort over the last decade. Since 2012, the university has increased the amount of food scraps it composts from about 60 tons to 118 tons, according to Aaron Witham, assistant director of facilities management for sustainability.

They also started a program about two years ago called Green Wave, which provides students and staff with the opportunity to purchase reusable containers for takeout food with the option to have the containers washed and returned by their food service provider.

USM’s sustainability office works with K-12 schools on food waste and other issues related to sustainability, and Witham said schools face some of the same challenges regardless of the age of their students.

“In both higher ed and K-12, you have a population coming in, and they’re only there a certain number of years,” he said. “You have a great opportunity to educate them and tell them how to reduce food waste and compost, but then they graduate and you have a fresh batch of people with no knowledge of that previous education.”

The costs of ongoing education as well as other food waste reduction efforts – such as audits, changes in food packaging and investments in new equipment – are one reason U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said she is sponsoring federal legislation that would provide grants to schools to fund the study and reduction of food waste.

“Some Maine schools have been working on this issue, but it’s also a national issue that applies to schools all over the country,” Pingree said.

Implementing ideas to reduce waste, such as investing in new kitchen equipment or setting up composting programs, can represent added expenses for schools, she said, but it is also a way to address an issue an increasing number of young people are interested in: climate change.

“This is something students will need to know,” Adamowicz said. “This is a life skill that’s important for combating climate change. They see how important (reducing waste) is, and they’re taking it on and implementing a culture change. That’s actually really big when you think about the number of people in a school, the amount of waste and how fast a lunch period can be.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.