HomeCampusFree meals increase campus food waste, say reports, students and teachers

Free meals increase campus food waste, say reports, students and teachers

Published Jan. 31, 2024


With a kitchen producing almost 400,000 meals for the district each year and utilizing a free meals program, the Carmel High School campus is experiencing issues with food waste and, students say, quality.

Nearly four years after the pandemic, state reimbursement of breakfast and lunch for all students under the California Universal Meals Program, or UMP, has become the poster child for removing the stigma around school meals while increasing academic performance. Seven U.S. states have since followed in California’s footsteps.

“Kids get to come to school for free, so why not be able to serve free meals?” says Alexis Supancic, CUSD’s director of nutrition services. “Now there’s no stigma around free or reduced meals. Everybody comes in, no matter what their eligibility is.”

Yet statistics and students say that issues concerning food waste have worsened with the introduction of the UMP, which has increased the district-wide meal service rate by nearly 150%, according to Supancic.

An in-depth waste audit was led by CHS AP Environmental Science teacher Jason Maas-Baldwin in 2021, during the early stages of the free meals. Findings showed that kitchen scraps accounted for 30.6% of all campus trash, while student food waste added up to 38.1%. “Share tables,” buckets which allow students to take others’ unwanted fruits and vegetables, constituted 7% of campus trash in 2021.

The average number of meals served has increased by over 150% since meals have become free, which has increased campus food waste. (graphic by ZANA BALABAN)

According to Supancic and CHS principal Libby Duethman, share tables continue to be one of the school’s major responses to food waste.

Similar research conducted in 2015, before free meals were implemented, found that less than 25% of all campus waste was food, including compostable plastics that are no longer utilized.

“Free lunches create this gigantic problem,” Maas-Baldwin says. “Three-quarters of the mass of waste that goes into our trash cans is food.”

In compliance with 2022 California Senate Bill 1383, signed to minimize methane emissions from food waste in landfills, Supancic says the kitchen staff sorts organic waste into the compost. However, Supancic acknowledges there is little her team can do outside of the cafeteria. 

“I don’t know what’s happening out there after the food is served,” Supancic says.

According to Duethman, much of the responsibility for creating a cleaner and more sustainable campus environment falls to the students, from whom the principal says she observes a lack of initiative.

A similar concern is expressed by freshman Delilah Herro, who has noticed an increase in food waste in the past two years.

“Since the food is free,” Herro says, “people just take advantage and waste it.”

It’s clear that, for many students, campus food waste is a result of factors other than carelessness or clumsiness. From nearly 90 anonymous poll respondents from ninth through twelfth grade, 64% of students rated the food quality at CHS as poor. All 90 respondents reported that they would be less inclined to throw food away if its quality increased.

“We need to keep free options for some families,” one sophomore commented in the poll, “but if we can raise the quality and the healthiness of our food, that would be good.”

Freshman Casey Boone agrees.

“If the food’s bad,” Boone says, “I’m not going to eat it.”

Additionally, 97% of students said they would be less inclined to throw food away if à la carte service was available.

“My old school did à la carte, and it was the best thing to ever exist,” one senior observed. “They also had a free lunch line next to the à la carte.”

Supancic explains that difficulties with lunch lines and collecting money resulted in her decision not to offer à la carte.

“The food waste is pretty bad,” junior Olivia Bell says. “I’d love to see compost bins installed on campus. Also, it would be nice if we used less unneeded plastic to wrap certain foods.”

The compost bins Bell mentions were available to students briefly last school year, but have since been boarded up due to contamination issues.

“We have a lack of initiative against the problem because there are so many people involved,” Maas-Baldwin says. “There are all these separate little parts, and trying to connect them is complicated when you think about how big our operation is.”

According to the science teacher, the bigger picture provides a comparison to the issue’s scale.

“If we can’t solve this problem here at CHS,” he adds, “how are we going to solve it worldwide?”

Statistics highlight the importance of addressing the problem, yet the financial benefits should not be understated. The program serves every student, regardless of economic status and background.

“Free lunches have helped me,” sophomore Angeleen Dueñas Paz says. “Coming from a low-income family with a single mom, it has been great not having to worry about these [food] expenses as well.”

The effect has been felt district-wide, with the largest impact on Carmelo Preschool, where 90% of students rely completely on the CHS kitchen to supply breakfast and lunch. However, Carmelo’s bookkeeper Marie Dart Newell notes that because the children are young and portions are large, much food is thrown away.

“When understanding how our actions today contribute to the legacy of pollution and global warming we are leaving future generations, it’s hard to see all the waste,” Dart Newell says. “Until there is a cultural change at the highest levels of CUSD and the issue of food waste and our environment becomes a priority, the waste in our schools will continue.”

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