32+ Key School Lunch Food Waste Statistics

Schools waste millions worth of food annually, impacting the environment. Solutions include reducing portion sizes and involving students in food prep.

School lunch and stationery. Lunch boxes with chicken, rice, salad, fruits and nuts on an orange background, top view. Healthy balanced food for children in lunchboxes, flat lay.

Food waste is a significant problem in schools across the world. Every day, schools throw away large amounts of uneaten food after lunch.

This worrying trend wastes food, which negatively impacts the environment and contributes to climate change. What could be causing these worrying trends?

Different councils have implemented programs to reduce food waste and share the excess with the needy. They target zero landfill waste and maximum food utilization and recycling.

Let’s explore the top 10 school lunch food waste statistics from this post to understand the scope of the issue better. 

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10 Key School Lunch Food Waste Statistics

  • The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates almost 40% of food produced in the United States goes to waste.
  • According to the USDA, schools waste around $600 million worth of food each year.
  • On average, a school-age child throws away 67 pounds of food each year.
  • A study by the World Wildlife Fund found that, on average, students throw away 39 pounds of food annually.
  • The same NRDC study found that fruits and vegetables are the most commonly wasted food items in schools.
  • In a survey of 1,500 school food service directors, 47% said food waste is a serious problem in their schools.
  • In a separate survey of students, 75% reported that they sometimes or always throw away food at lunch.
  • The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic found that schools can save up to $250 million through food waste reduction programs.
  • Another study by the University of Arkansas found that simply reducing the size of the plates in school cafeterias can lead to a 30% reduction in food waste.
  • Finally, a report by the World Wildlife Fund found that if food waste were a country, it would be in the top three countries for greenhouse emissions.

About 30%-40% of annual food produce is wasted (USDA)

Research by the United States Department of Agriculture shows that about 30%-40% of annual food produce in America goes to waste. This results in landfills and environmental degradation.

According to the USDA, these foods can feed needy families through food rescue programs, food banks, and local countries.

Schools waste about $600 million worth of food each year (eFAN)

According to USDA, food wastage in schools yearly amounts to $600 million. This cost does not include the cost of federal share or state administrative expenses.

The amount can exceed $1 billion when other costs are included. In addition to monetary loss, learners incur nutritional losses and miss the health value of the food.

Many factors contribute to this large amount of food waste. They include poor food preparation in school cafeterias and the popularity of junk food among school-going children. 

Educating learners about healthy foods is necessary to help change their perceptions and eating habits.

On average, a school-age child throws away 67 pounds of food each year (EarthShare)

School children waste up to 530,000 tons of lunch food annually. This translates to about 18,000 pounds of waste per elementary school and 67 pounds per child.

About 8% of Wasted Food Comes From Schools 

According to a report by NRDC, 8% of waste food in America comes from institutional and food service settings. Schools and hospitals can reduce food waste through improved ordering, preparation, and storage techniques. 

In another survey, 1500 students were interviewed, and 75% agreed they sometimes throw away food.

Schools spend about $9.7 million a day to manage food waste (Worldwildlife.org)

A World Wildlife Fund report estimates the annual food wastage in US schools to be 530,000 tons. About 49.2 pounds of food and 19.4 gallons of milk are thrown out yearly per school.

Schools can, however, cut their trash output through waste reduction programs. According to the report, this could see the American government saving up to 100 billion it spends on food production annually.

If the wasted food is given to needy people, it can save the government a lot of food. In addition, the government expenditure on food production can reduce significantly if school administrators and students curb food wastage.

Vegetables and fruits are the most wasted foods (NRDC.org)

A National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) study indicates that most school food waste comprises fruits and vegetables.

The article points out that most learners are obese but find it challenging to adopt a healthier meal. Vegetables and fruits are more nutritious and cheaper, but most children prefer junk and fast foods.

According to the post, more vegetables in tastier foods can improve consumption and minimize waste, which calls for better preparation methods and recipes.

Food waste in schools generates about 8% of greenhouse gases annually (FAO.org)

A third of human-caused greenhouse emissions come from waste food, constituting about 8% of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Besides gas emissions, food waste degrades environmental resources. To produce more food, we exhaust water reservoirs.

Allowing learners more time to eat can reduce food waste by 13% (SDState.edu)

Most schools offer students a 20-minute lunch break, leading to food waste.

If schools give learners more time to eat, they will eat all their food without feeling that they are in a rush. This will decrease food waste by at least 13%. 

The ideal time for school lunch breaks should be 30 minutes, which does not include serving time.

Schools can save up to $250 million through food waste reduction program (TheGuardian.com)

Food waste reduction programs can save schools up to $250 million annually, translating to about a 22% reduction in food expenditure per school every year. 

If schools embrace reduction programs, the savings on food expenses can be more. For example, David Leake reports having reduced food wastage by 75% in two years in one of the schools.

Reducing plate sizes in schools can reduce food waste by 30% (USDA.org)

According to a report by USDA, the best way to reduce food waste in schools is by ensuring students consume what they take. The school nutrition staff and teachers should sensitize students on saving food. 

Reducing plate sizes can also save food. This helps to control the amount you serve each student. In the end, less food goes to waste.

Plate waste ranges from 12% to 73.3% of food components selected (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)

In a study published by the National Library of Medicine, students waste 12%-73.3% of food per plate. Most of the food they throw away comprises vegetables.

Grain waste stands at 44.6% among elementary school students (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)

School-going children in elementary school throw away almost half of the grains they serve. About 44.6% of grains in their serving go to waste, indicating grains are not popular among young children.

Middle school students waste about 47.4% of food per plate, the highest component being fresh fruits (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)

Teenagers waste 47.4% of their servings, mostly fresh fruits. The research recommends better lunchrooms to improve vegetable and fruit consumption among students.

Buffet meals waste about 5% of food during the preparation and serving of students (mdpi.com)

Although students prefer buffet meals, 5% go to waste due to overpreparation. This results from food demand fluctuation and changes in school programs such as hair day classes. 

52% of students prefer taking lunch outside the school (mdpi.com)

More than half of students prefer taking lunch in cafeterias outside the school. Since the hotels serve fast food, there is severe food waste.

Faculty members in schools waste about 43% of plated food

In a research conducted by University Park, faculty members throw away 43% or more of their serving. Adults waste almost half of their food in a school cafeteria or outside.

Plate waste in most US states accounts for 20%-50% of the food served (psu.edu)

A study on school food waste in different countries indicates 20%-50% of plate waste, and some school cafeterias waste up to 53%.

School Cafeterias Waste 530,000 Tons of Food Every Year (earthshare.org)

Food cafeterias throw away 530,000 tons yearly, leading to massive landfill and severe resource wastage. Additional wastage includes labor, processing and distribution fee, and farm inputs.

Scheduling recess before lunch can reduce food waste by 30% (usda.gov)

USDA Economic Research recommends scheduling recess before the lunch break to minimize food wastage by students. According to the research, schools can reduce food waste by 30% when students rest before serving lunch.

Making 30 minute lunch periods reduces plate waste by nearly one-third (usda.gov)

Many students throw away food because they need more eating time. USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates food waste to reduce by one-third if students have more lunch time.

Allowing students to participate in gardening and cooking can reduce food wastage (usda.gov)

Children appreciate the hard work of growing food when they participate in gardening. When they know how to cook, they won’t waste food.


School lunch food waste is a significant problem, but there are solutions to reduce the amount of food that makes it into the trash after lunch. Schools can reduce portion sizes, implement food waste reduction programs, and involve students in the growth and preparation process.

By taking action, schools can save money and help protect the environment and fight climate change. Furthermore, they will help the government reduce expenditure on food for better economic growth.

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