Spotlight on the School Cafeteria Discards Assessment Project

Spotlight on the School Cafeteria Discards Assessment Project

With various studies, including a 2012 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, indicating that up to 40% of the food produced in the US ends up in landfills (an annual total of about $165 billion worth of food), there seems to be little doubt that the United States is struggling with a challenging food waste problem. In response, the US Department of Agriculture and the EPA recently set a nationwide goal to divert half of all food waste from landfills by 2030.

What is the SCrAP program about?

fruitIn order to achieve this goal, which the two agencies aim to do through a combination of increased waste management options and reduced waste generation, it’s important that we understand as much as possible about where and why food waste is being produced. One particular focus area that has emerged is school cafeterias. At present, there is little information available about how much of the food served in school cafeterias ends up in the garbage. However, if we could gather more data, we could make significant steps to reduce food waste, decrease food costs for schools, and develop more effective ways to manage institutional food waste.

This is where School Cafeteria Discards Assessment Project (SCrAP) comes in. Developed by the Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF), together with the World Wildlife Fund and the School Nutrition Foundation, the SCrAP program aims to collect quantifiable data on food waste (as well as related waste such as recyclables) that is generated at K-12 school cafeterias around the country. The idea is to create a detailed picture about how much waste is generated at school cafeterias, how it is managed by the schools, and what happens to it after it is hauled away.

Why should schools participate in SCrAP?

The more information that can be gathered as part of the SCrAP program, the better America’s food waste policies and initiatives can be, and the stronger our chances are of minimizing waste generation and maximizing sustainability at schools nationwide. All types of schools are needed as participants: elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as private and charter institutions.

How can schools become involved in SCrAP?

In order to help accommodate different levels of interest and availability, there are a number of different ways for schools to become involved with the SCrAP program.

The first and simplest option is to participate at the “Purple” level. Purple-level schools volunteer to complete a questionnaire about their waste management practices. The questionnaire takes about an hour to complete, and it can be easily submitted online.

The second option is the “Blue” level, which involves completing a waste management questionnaire and weighing cafeteria waste bins on three to five separate occasions. Weighing the waste is an important step that provides hard data on the type and quantity of waste being created. After participating schools have weighed the bins, the waste can be disposed of in the usual way.

The final option is the “Gold” level. Taking the tasks of the Blue level one step further, participants at the Gold level complete the questionnaire and weigh their bins between six and 10 times. The extra weight measurements help to provide an even more comprehensive picture of waste generation and management, including more details about how the waste stream changes throughout the school year and the extent to which menu changes in the school’s cafeteria impact the quantity of waste created.

Other questions about the SCrAP program:

  • When is the program happening?—Schools can opt to participate in the SCrAP program at any point during the school year. Questionnaires can be submitted at any time, and the weight measurements for Blue and Gold level participants can be carried out over the course of whatever period is most convenient for the school. Ideally, however, EREF recommends that Blue level measurements be conducted over a 30-45 day period and Gold level measurements over a 30-90 day period (this helps to maximize convenience and minimize potential complications).
  • Who should be in charge of administering the SCrAP program?—Participating schools will receive an easy-to-follow set of instructions on best practices for weighing waste and recording the necessary measurements. At elementary schools, any cafeteria worker, PTA member, or parent volunteer could lead the SCrAP program efforts. At middle schools and high schools, administering the SCrAP program would make an ideal activity for members of student environmental or science clubs.
  • How should the SCrAP program be advertised at participating schools?—EREF can supply signage and awareness materials to schools in order to help promote SCrAP program participation and educate students and staff about the importance of reducing and properly managing their food waste. Students can also be in charge of developing signage and other materials as part of extracurricular projects.
  • How many schools will be participating in SCrAP?—As mentioned above, the more participants there are, the more data can be gathered and the more successful the program will be. EREF’s goal is to have at least 500 schools nationwide participating at the Purple level and 400 schools participating at the Blue and Gold level (these are the minimum numbers needed to provide an adequate level of statistical confidence in the data).

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