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Can "Share Tables" Reduce Food Waste in Schools?

I want to optimize and ensure that school lunches provided are not wasted and used to it is maximum potential.

Photo of Roshini Rangarajan
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        Schools across the country, provide a sustainable school lunch requiring fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nutrients. However, a typical student throws away some of their school lunch leaving it most of it untouched. The perfectly uneaten food will be sent to a local landfill. But, all that untouched food could have been saved.

The solution:  Have a “Share Table” at school.

What is a Share Table?

            A Share Table could be a table or bin that students can place their untouched milk cartons or food such as an apple. Once, all the students place their uneaten food in the bin or on a designated table the students from that lunch period can receive additional food if they are still hungry. If there is leftover food in that bin students who come the next lunch period can grab additional food to add on to their meal. At the end of the day, the remaining food in the bin or table is used for the next day. This way all the food will be efficiently distributed to every student and can save money. Additionally, the remaining food in the bin can be donated to local food bank.

        This idea is used in Cerritos Elementary School in order to prevent food waste and provide students a well- balanced meal. However, within the 31 schools in the ABC Unified School District it is unknown whether they are using “Share Table” during their lunch period. Therefore, implementing this idea in other schools in the country can help save money and help not to waste food.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Have you seen untouched food being thrown away in the trash in your local school? Could it have been used for a better cause? If so, contact a school near you in order to educate students about food waste and implement the “Share Table” in their school.

Tell us about your work experience:

I am a middle school student interested to help find creative solutions to problems.


Join the conversation:

Photo of An Old Friend

Hey Roshini! I love your post -- thanks for bringing this up and putting attention on changing how we view food in schools! I grew up in the US and also saw so much food waste in schools. In particular, I remember people not wanting to drink milk (especially a lot of people who are lactose intolerant) and others who hide food in their milk cartons (we had to finish a certain amount of our food before they would let us leave in elementary school to go to recess). I also remember that we weren't allowed to pick where we got to sit at lunch -- you just lined up and you sat next to whomever happened to be near you, meaning that a lot of people didn't talk very much during lunch (or at least me, as a shy elementary school student, I often didn't!). To me this seems so sad, as I think a dramatic way we need to reimagine food is not just as a collection of calories/nutrients/etc., but also as something we can share and enjoy and appreciate with our community!

So a couple of various thoughts/ideas your post has made me think about!
  - The way (I would imagine a lot of, but I can only speak to the ones I've been in) schools in the US treat food is as a source of nutrients/calories that you need, but not necessarily as much else. How can we redesign/rethink school lunches to change that? Share tables is a good idea, IDEO recently did a project with SFUSD that you might be interested ( that gets into some other ideas. Can we build more community into our meals at school? Can we add more choice or more education of the broader food system or something else?
  - When I was in primary/secondary school, I always brought my own lunch instead of buying the one at school. This definitely had a bit of a social stigma associated with it, but I enjoyed being able to make my own lunches and not being required to eat foods at school that I didn't want/like. Why did this social stigma exist? What does it tell us about how food is often used as a social indicator? How can we redesign our conception of food to counteract this?
  - At school, which already can be a hard social environment, getting free/fee-reduced meals can often be embarrassing to the student -- how can we make food more about sharing and less about socioeconomic status?
 - Speaking of social pressure, communal eating spaces in schools can often be difficult for people who are struggling with eating disorders, which is really common in middle and high school. How could redesigning our school lunch experience/relationship with food be used as a way to also help provide support for individuals attempting to fight/heal from eating disorders?
  - I did a project a few years  ago about a bill called the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, which basically lets schools participate in the free/fee-reduced school lunch program if they follow certain nutritional requirements. But one problem with this is that the requirements are really stringent - every kid must take all parts of the meal, the school must serve foods that comply with strict nutritional requirements (calories, etc.), food sold outside of the cafeteria (bake sales, vending machines, etc.) are tightly regulated, etc. Part of this seems to be about how policymakers in the US are currently envisioning food - it's mostly a collection of calories/nutrients/etc., rather than something people can share and enjoy in. This seems to play into what you're saying, because it means that the school is required to continue serving those food items that they know will probably just get thrown away. This singular definition of food also poses a racial problem: as all children are required to to take milk, for example, people who are lactose intolerant (who tend to be more people of color), are forced to take foods that are bad for them.
- I think I only came to really think about this during college, but we have really strict requirements for when people eat in schools! At college, dining halls are only open during certain hours (at the school where I went, dining halls were mostly closed by 7PM for dinner!), and in primary/secondary school, you have a specific period when we eat. This teaches people that they have to eat at specific times, not necessarily when they're hungry. Is there a way we can redesign cafeteria/meal experiences in education to change that?

I had other thoughts but I'm forgetting them now. Thanks again for sharing!

Photo of Roshini Rangarajan

Hi Nathalie! Sorry for the late reply. First of all, I would like to thank you for the links and your reply to my research. To start off, in our primary and secondary schools some rules have changed. First, there isn’t much visibility of a socioeconomic status during our lunch period. Students can sit anywhere they please. Second, lactose intolerant students, have many options to choose from such as fruit punch. But, despite these changes, students still tend to waste majority of their school lunch. Thus, I had a few ideas in mind:  

-Students can earn points based on the amount of food their class wastes. The lower amount of food they waste the higher points they receive. Then, the class with the highest amount of points can receive a special incentive at the end of the year.

- Another idea I had in mind, expands the share table to a larger scale. Every street can have a food bin. So, at the end of the week one person can go by everyone’s home and collect extra food that they won’t be eating that week. Then, the next week a new person can do the same.

Thank you, Nathalie once again, for your story and your ideas.

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