Incite Post | The Cafeteria Food Fight
We’ve said this before… our food system is one of the biggest opportunities to impact change for both people and the planet.
Why? If food waste were a country, it’d be the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter, just behind China and the US. That’s why our co-founder, Matt Rogers, launched Mill in 2020 to transform the way food is recycled and repurposed in the home. But when it comes to food, we aren’t stopping at individual homes; we want to revamp the entire food system, positioning it for generations of success. That means not only bringing quality, nutritious food to our youth today, but also helping them understand where it came from, where it will go, and the impact it will have on our planet. To achieve this, we are diving deep on one of America’s largest food systems – school cafeterias.
Across the US, over 30 million meals are served each day through the National School Lunch Program. That’s a lot of kids receiving food that is often low-quality, highly-processed, and frankly, not that tasty. The result? Children don’t receive the nutrition they need, and food ends up in the garbage can, making lunchtime a huge opportunity to turn the system on its head.
But we also know this is work we can’t do ourselves. To impact the K-12 food system in a meaningful way, a multi-faceted ecosystem is needed, and so this year we’ve decided to help fund three incredible nonprofits: Chef Ann, Eat Real, and WWF who are each tackling the cafeteria problem from a different angle. We’ve asked their founders to share some thoughts on how their organization will impact change:
The Chef Ann Foundation is dedicated to promoting whole-ingredient, scratch-cooking in schools, starting with the chefs behind the food – training lunch staff to integrate sustainability into their meal preparation through programmatic efforts. Mara Fleishman is the Chief Executive Officer of the Chef Ann Foundation.
- Since your founding nearly 15 years ago, Chef Ann has established programs in all 50 states. How have your scratch-cooking initiatives revamped the school food system while also creating higher quality food service jobs?The Chef Ann Foundation (CAF) works to cultivate a school food system that meets the health, social, academic, and environmental needs required for all K-12 students to thrive and meet their full potential. We think the greatest impact can be had through changing school food programs throughout the nation. Our mission is to ensure that school food professionals have the resources and ongoing professional development training they need to provide fresh scratch-meals that support the health of children and our planet. For each initiative, CAF works with state departments and school districts to develop multi-year strategies to serve more locally-grown food that supports student well-being, local economies, and the environment. To date, we have impacted the school food eaten by nearly 3.4 million children (more than half of whom qualify for the free/reduced lunch program) and reached over 14,000 schools in all 50 states with our programming.
- Why are Chef Ann’s efforts to implement scratch cooking in districts so important to the larger food waste movement?School food operates on an enormous scale and presents a unique opportunity to impact the long term eating habits and health outcomes of millions of students in the communities we serve. By promoting the purchase of whole ingredients locally, scratch cooking contributes to the local food economy and a more environmentally sustainable way of preparing food in schools. This presents a unique opportunity to focus on long term sustainable practices that can support a healthier and environmentally friendly food system and reduce food waste as well as packaging waste. This year, CAF launched a bulk milk granting program for districts throughout the nation. Milk is one of the biggest sources of food waste at schools across the country. Wasted milk means the environmental and financial resources that went into producing, transporting, cooling, and storing the milk are wasted, too. USDA guidelines for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs require schools to offer milk with every lunch or breakfast served. Most schools serve milk in either a single-use carton or plastic bottle. With a bulk milk system, schools could save 30 pounds of carbon dioxide per student — the equivalent of taking 145,000 gas-powered vehicles off the road.
Eat REAL has developed a free certification program that helps schools bring healthier, locally sourced food to the lunch line. Nora LaTorre is the Chief Executive Officer of Eat REAL.
- Eat Real has been able to help drive meaningful school food systems legislation in California through its three main pillars: awareness, advocacy and access. What are the windows of opportunity for this to be translated to federal level policy to create better school lunch programs nationwide?We believe that school meal investments are one of the best investments we can make as a nation. There is a triple ROI: improved nourishment for students, strengthened local economies and a regenerated planet (e.g., through food waste reduction, regional sourcing, regenerative organic agriculture and more climate smart fruit & veggies). We worked closely with Senator Skinner to champion California’s recently passed SB348 bill, which not only raises the bar for school meals, but also makes more adequate meal times possible which is a food waste reduction win. If kids actually have time to enjoy school meals, they can throw less food away. This is just one example of a policy innovation that will be impactful. Schools are the largest restaurant chain in America making national policies that reduce school food waste one of the best ways to prevent, reduce and make food waste more circular.
- How has your experience scaling Eat Real’s school nutrition certification program to over 600 schools in the US influenced how Eat Real is looking to integrate food waste efforts in this next phase of program development?We are rapidly scaling our school food program which supports local Food Service heroes to transform their school food programs to be delicious, nourishing and sustainable. In addition to expanding our model, we are continuously innovating our approach to deepen our impact. You'll see even more food waste insights, data, model evolution, creative programing and awareness building campaigns coming from our team. We are actively building food waste partnerships and resources to support the community leaders in our program. My food system innovation journey started in school so I'm personally excited for the new ways we'll lift up youth. Students are the most determined to improve the future.
The Food Waste Warriors program at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) supercharges the advancement of critical food waste tactics and policies in schools by leveraging its influential position at the state and federal level. Pete Pearson is the Global Initiative Lead of Food Circularity at WWF.
- Your team at Food Waste Warriors (FWW) works across school districts to empower students with the practical knowledge to reduce food waste. How does this work influence the larger food waste and loss policy movement?The FWW program has expanded its efforts to include a focus on policy change, where grant recipients collaborate with school district and city officials to advocate for policies that can sustain food waste reduction efforts. Examples include increased public funding for food waste education, developing share-table standard operating procedures and guidance, creating new district staff positions or STEM teachers to focus on food waste reduction. One of our grantees in Maryland successfully leveraged our curriculum and intervention support, led by high school students, to pass a state bill providing funding for school composting and food waste education programs. Our toolkit and new postcard writing materials for grades 9-12 guides students to further support these efforts, and we are working with all of our grantees to develop a plan to influence policy change.
- Why do you see a holistic ecosystem approach as the best mechanism to reduce food loss and waste in schools?We’ve normalized wasting food in this country, and for students to truly understand the impacts of throwing food in the trash, and to feel empowered to lead future solutions, they need to understand where and how their food is produced, and how wasting food exacerbates habitat and biodiversity loss and climate change. By transforming cafeterias into classrooms, students engage in a hands-on, immersive practice where they are visually seeing food waste in a new way, and thinking critically about how to design solutions tailored to their school’s community and context. We additionally encourage a whole school and community approach—with a diversity of local partners and school leaders—to ensure proposed solutions can continue long after students graduate.
Our funding to these organizations will help them rapidly accelerate the development of their food waste reduction efforts and position our youth to be more environmentally conscious for generations to come. A worthy cause? Yes, indeed – and the good news is that you can be a part of the movement too. Here is how you can support and stay informed:
Eat Real: Thanks to IDEO’s generosity, we just launched our new brand and website: www.EatReal.org. People can sign up for our newsletter here and follow us on Instagram plus connect directly with our nonprofit and Nora on Linkedin. People can also check out Nora’s recent TEDX Planetary Stewardship talk, Eat Climate Change, to learn more about our award-winning approach
Food Waste Warriors: To contact our team and learn more about food waste, please email us at our FWW email (email@example.com). You can access the new resources our team has developed based on feedback from our school partners on our website, including our latest video, “Why Does Food Waste Matter?”, and the FWW Calendar.
What We're Reading & Listening To
Priority Climate Action Plan Guide: Organic Waste & Landfill Methane Strategies
RMI and Industrious Labs
Matt Rogers of Mill Industries on Food Waste, Impactful Product Design, and Innovation
Consensus in Conversation
Chef Ann Foundation
Promoting Healthy School Food
Eliminating Food Waste
Growing Better Food
Converting Carbon into Fabric
Electrifying Home Climate Control