Sustainability Trends in School Food Service

In many schools across the United States, from elementary through college, cafeterias are beginning to move towards providing healthier, sustainable options for students. Sustainable food is ethically responsible, minimizes the negative effects on the environment, prioritizes human health, and is produced from places that treat animals humanely and treat workers fairly.

The current generation of students cares about where their food comes from, and how it got to their plates – in other words, they care whether or not their food is sustainable. Kids are also craving more whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, and foods made from scratch instead of the highly processed foods that have been served in many cafeterias.

Schools that don’t provide sustainable food selections are running into problems – students don’t consider sustainability to be an option; it’s a necessity. High school students in Chicago are publicly protesting their current school lunch options, claiming that it is “unhealthy, unappetizing, and overly processed.” (WBEZ91.5)

So, what are successful schools doing to promote the sustainable food movement within school cafeterias? How are schools meeting the demands of students and their families? There are several things that schools are doing and can continue to do so that the foods kids are eating in school are good for them, good for the environment, and good for the future.

Taking Students’ Health into Consideration

There are some food preferences that students share at all ages like hand held foods, on-the-go options, made-to-order foods, and common staples, like fruits, pizza, chicken sandwiches, and salads. Taste preferences tend to differ depending on the age of the student; younger children prefer simpler foods and older ones enjoy more complex and diverse options.

Schools who support the sustainability movement understand these differences, and how to select food options based on student needs. For example, serving complex dishes to fourth graders would result in a lot more food waste, which is not sustainable, but college students are likely to appreciate it.

Reducing Kitchen Waste

There are a lot of ways to reduce the amount of waste that results from a school kitchen and cafeteria, from recycling and reusing materials and composting food waste to choosing more eco-friendly packaging and dish options. Many schools are choosing to get food locally, which minimizes the amount of packaging and padding required to transport it to the school, and ultimately, reduces waste.

Composting

Schools do tend to have some waste, but there is a sustainable way to deal with it. Composting takes sustainability one step further – it doesn’t end when the food is consumed. Children of all ages can learn to compost, from elementary through college. At the higher level, using compostable food packaging or other materials also reduces waste and adds to sustainability.

Compost can be reused as the process begins again – it can help fertilize landscaping, gardening and farming on school grounds.

Local Sourcing

Another way to promote sustainable food practices is to get food locally. Foods that travel the shortest distances have the least effect on the environment. It’s also easier to get local foods faster, which means that these foods are the freshest and are more likely to retain their health benefits by the time they’re served on a student’s plate.

School Gardens

One of the ultimate results of a more sustainable school food system, including compost as fertilizer, the most local sourcing possible, minimizing fuel and transportation costs, and using fresh, healthy, whole, foods, is that students and staff are taking things into their own hands, and growing their own sustainable foods. This can be a very cost effective option, and it can potentially fit the definition of sustainable food to a tee, depending on how the garden is cared for.

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