Trends in Schools: Waste-free School Lunch

Kanga Sac reusable sandwich bags

Watching children scrap perfectly good food off a tray into a garbage bin is alarming. On Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, the piles of wasted food and half-used packaging—even unopened, packaged food—hauled away after school lunch was the most shocking part of a very shocking series. School lunch waste is preventable, but it requires changing thinking and changing habits.

Waste-free Lunches estimates that

a school-age child using a disposable lunch generates 67 pounds of waste per school year. That equates to 18,760 pounds of lunch waste for just one average-size elementary school

It costs schools money to haul waste, so waste-free lunch initiatives aren’t necessarily about environmental impact. Schools are looking for any way to reduce all waste. Trash cans full of wasted food and thrown away plastic containers are just one of the big sources of school waste. Whatever the motivation, waste-free lunch is a trend that is easy to welcome.

Does Your School Have Guidelines?

School waste-reduction programs that work have advocates in the schools. If you want to start a program for your child’s school, be prepared to get involved. If you have support from the school district or the provincial or state office of education, that’s a big help. But, the real work of shifting awareness and changing habits will happen day to day in the schools.

When one school in New York City participated in a Department of Sanitation waste prevention assessment, they found that each person generates ½ pound of waste per day. That would bump the Waste-free Lunch numbers up to 90 pounds of waste per school year per person. So, New York City provides simple guidelines and refers back to Waste-free Lunch.

Most waste reduction programs start with simple guidelines and build from there.

One California school conducted a pilot program in one classroom, giving each of the 30 students a reusable lunch kit then measuring success of the program. All parents used the kits and most agreed that they would continue to use them.

A very successful program can lead to a completely different approach to children and food at school. The Rethinking School Lunch guide from the Center for Ecoliteracy considers health, experience, food cycles, and more then incorporates all of it into the curriculum. Children don’t just fuel up at lunch time but they participate in food systems. Implementing this kind of program would take considerable commitment, but it helps to see the range of the possible.

Waste-free Lunch shares success stories, including a couple from Canada and the UK. When you read about the range of what people have tried and the ways they have succeeded, it is inspiring. Don’t be surprised if you come away with ideas to change school lunch at your child’s school.

Reusable Lunch Packaging

Reusable snack bag with zipper

The idea of a reusable lunch box or bag isn’t new, though it may be unusual to the children who will be carrying them. Once we take that step, it’s easy to make the rest of the lunch packaging reusable as well. My family packs lunches in reusable glass containers with snap tops. The weight of these can add up for a young child, but I like that we can use the same containers to store leftovers and for lunches. They still take up space and add weight on the way home, though. What works for a young child?

The innovation that catches my eye is also a new twist on an old idea: reusable snack bags and sandwich wrappers. So obvious, and so brilliant! The best versions of these don’t use any plastics at all but just zip the food into heavy canvas or wrap a sandwich in a cotton cloth.

Again and again, the old ideas become the new trends.

Next week I will go into more detail about all of the great reusable lunch products you can find at the Kids’ division of

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