The complex world of school cafeteria food donation

Published on: 
3 May 2016
Nancy Deming, Oakland Unified School District Sustainability Manager

In my position at Oakland Unified School District, I sit between the Custodial and Nutrition Services Departments. One of my main areas of focus is in developing a district-wide food donation program, and I’ve met with a variety of successes and challenges along the way. It is taking shape, and once it is fully developed, it can be used as a model for other schools and school districts.

Cafeteria food going unused

Anyone who spends time in K–12 school cafeterias with high participation in the federal meal program witnesses the volume of edible food that goes to waste. It goes well beyond the fruit peelings, the pizza or sandwich crust, or even the half-drunk milk that students toss. Food waste in cafeterias includes whole untouched fruit, bags of baby carrots, unopened packaged entrees, and cartons and cartons of unopened milk. For schools that are able to do scratch cooking, there are inevitably fruits and milk that go to waste. But the waste is greatest in cafeterias that are dependent on providing packaged items.

Witnessing this tossing of good food on a daily basis is overwhelming, pushing well-meaning people in schools to do something about it, such as a coach at one middle school in Los Angeles County. He collected the fruit that students did not want during lunch and gave it out to hungry students later in the day. News reports say he was fired for this and that it violated legal and public health rules. Yes, he was in the wrong for collecting and distributing food surplus in this manner. However, the piece that these initial news reports missed was how schools might legally be able to keep this surplus food from going to the landfill or compost.

What's involved in donation?

The Good Samaritan Act and the USDA Lunch Act allow and encourage schools to donate surplus food. Great, so let's donate! Sounds relatively easy, and how difficult can it be, especially since we have complained about it for so long? Unfortunately, since the regulations are new, uncharted territory, the details are not fully formulated yet. There are different perspectives on the what and how of implementation, not to mention many different entities lending their opinions. The USDA provides the general framework for food donation. Then, the state education departments and counties’ public health departments make their final statements about what they determine to be legal. And, finally, school districts must then compile and understand all the details for themselves.

Luckily, we have some passionate and driven folks that are working to make it easier to donate school food on local and national levels. Our model state right now is Indiana, thanks to the tireless work of Food Rescue, where they have passed state legislation detailing how to donate and what is allowed to be donated. We have a national school food donation assistance organization, Food Bus, which assists schools and school districts in setting up a school food donation program. And several school districts are taking the lead on developing internal district-wide food donation programs, such as California districts Oakland Unified, Los Angeles Unified and Anaheim Unified.

Next steps

In the case of the coach from Los Angeles County who was trying to donate food to students, the details are not public. But his experience in his school’s cafeteria, witnessing with frustration good food was being wasted, is common and relatable. All of us—and our schools, school districts, counties, states and federal governments—have the responsibility to develop solutions so that good, edible food fills bellies and not the landfill. The effort is worth the end results, so take the time to

  • Become familiar with the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act and the National School Lunch Act.
  • Check to see what your county environmental health department and state have documented on school food donation.
  • Check to see if your school district has, or is working on, procedures and policies for a food share donation program. Come up with creative solutions for ways it can be improved to capture more surplus food.
  • Review Indiana’s legislation on school food donation and see what can be created for your own state.