Nutrition news

How Ventura County Schools Reduced Food Waste During the Pandemic

As the pandemic grew in Ventura County, classrooms closed but most school cafeterias remained open. For several months, some cafeteria staff worked harder than usual to assemble and bag “to-go” meals for the children. Nutrition fueled young minds engaged in remote learning, but it also created a lot of packaging and food waste.

When students returned to school, many cafeterias reverted to less wasteful operations in which children are offered rather than food served.

“Children have a choice,” said Linda Jordan, spokeswoman for the Ojai Unified School District. “As they pass the fruit and veg they can grab one or visit the salad bar.” Giving kids a choice, rather than providing a pre-selected meal on their tray, she said, “results in both better nutrition and less food waste.”

“Share tables” are another waste reduction practice in many schools. Some children still do not eat all of the foods they have selected. Rather than throwing unopened milk cartons and other unwanted items in the trash, they put them on a designated sharing table for other children to take away for free.

Health regulators encourage sharing tables “as long as they’re done safely,” said Graciela Garcia, who handles food inspections for Ventura County’s Environmental Health Division.

When sharing tables aren’t enough to handle the volume of unopened milk cartons, cafeteria staff at some schools wash the containers and put them back in the fridge before the milk goes bad.

Although rare, some schools donate leftovers to food pantries or a food bank, which is allowed by state law.

Spirit of Santa Paula, which operates a homeless shelter, recently sent a refrigerated truck to a school cafeteria to collect 64 cartons of yogurt, which was nearly expired but still safe to eat.

Waste reduction lessons at school can be applied at home. For meals with guests or just your own family, you’ll generate less waste if you let everyone choose their food and portions, rather than serving them.

David Goldstein, environmental resources analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency, can be reached at [email protected] or (805) 658-4312