Keeping Food Waste Out of the Landfill

May 1, 2016, Department, by Allison Colman

Children are more likely to eat fresh fruits and vegetables and hot meals, than processed foods, which can help to reduce food waste.In 2014, the United States Department of Agriculture reported that 48.1 million Americans live in food insecure households. Of that number, 15.3 million are children. While this number is staggering, what’s even more shocking is that despite the fact that almost 50 million Americans are living in food insecure homes, almost 80 billion pounds of food is discarded in U.S. landfills each year.

According to a 2012 study conducted by the Business for Social Responsibility for the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, many of these losses are occurring in residential settings (47 percent), full-service restaurants (22 percent) and quick-service restaurants (15 percent). Meal service providers like schools, hospitals and park and recreation agencies also contribute to this number and must take steps to remedy this problem. With millions of people and children living in food insecure homes, meal providers need to consider how they are addressing this critical issue and preventing food waste from simply being tossed into landfills, rather than repurposed to provide additional benefits to the community.  

Best Practices to Reduce Food Waste

In 2015, 25 park and recreation agencies took steps to address food waste within their out-of-school time programs (those participating in the Summer Food Service Program and the Child and Adult Care Food Program). These agencies were tasked with implementing new policies and procedures to reduce food waste and create more sustainable meal programs. Based on the successes and feedback from these agencies, NRPA has compiled a list of best practices to reduce food waste in out-of-school time program sites that are operating meal service programs. [Ed Note: With funding from the Walmart Foundation, NRPA is developing a Food Waste Best Practices Guide that will address several tactics for eliminating food waste. It will be available on NRPA’s website later this year.]

Proper Planning

Successful food waste reduction starts with proper planning. From accurate meal counts and source reduction to site selection, it is important to thoroughly plan your meal service programs to reduce the amount of food being wasted.  

Producing less food can help lower the amount of waste that is generated. While large portion sizes at restaurants and over-purchasing at the grocery store are typically the culprits, meal providers may be guilty of over-ordering food for their sites. It is important to keep accurate meal counts and track attendance at your meal sites. Enrollment numbers and attendance can change daily and weekly (especially during the summer months). 

Find the Right Food Vendor

Find a food vendor that meets the needs of your agency and community. If you’re participating in a meal program, make sure you are getting everything you need from your vendor. Will they work with you to ensure you are meeting nutrition standards and USDA guidelines? Do they have a meal delivery system in place to ensure food arrives at your site when it’s needed? Are you able to change your meal counts on a daily or weekly basis? These are all considerations when choosing a food vendor and a significant component in reducing the amount of food waste generated.

Quality of Food

You can’t have a conversation about food waste without addressing food quality. While there are nutrition standards in place for the federal nutrition programs, there is much room for improvement. While there are certainly exceptions, food vendors don’t always choose to serve the freshest and healthiest options, leaving children to eat meals that may not appeal to them.

Children are more likely to eat foods that are higher in quality, including fresh fruits and vegetables and hot meals, than foods that might appear to be processed. Meals that look and taste better are not only more likely to be fully consumed, but also are more likely to contribute to consistent attendance in out-of-school time programs, providing the mutual benefits of tackling childhood hunger and malnutrition and engaging kids in enrichment and learning programs.  

Holding focus groups with children and monitoring the popularity of meals is a great way to ensure you are serving foods that are high quality and enjoyable for children. The City of Aurora Parks Recreation and Open Space Department recently implemented both of these strategies. It successfully reduced food waste by working with a vendor to provide freshly prepared foods, encouraging children to try new items, and monitoring the popularity of items.  

Food Donation and Sharing

We know that proper planning and serving high-quality meals can help to reduce waste, but what can be done with extra food? The EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy offers the most preferred management strategies for wasted food. Many of these strategies can be implemented at park and recreation sites, including:

Share Tables: The majority of the 25 park and recreation agencies utilized a “share table” method, providing a table where children can place unwanted items others can eat. This helps to reduce waste and to feed children who are still hungry after their meal. In addition, many agencies, like those in the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, (when allowable) let children bring either a fruit or non-perishable, pre-packaged grain item home or store food according to regulations and re-purposed it to conduct healthy cooking classes and nutrition education lessons.  

Food Donation: With millions of households suffering from food insecurity, one of the most logical ways to address a surplus of food is to donate it. The Recreation and Park Commission for the East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, donates allowable extra food and milk to a local church. While there are regulations on what food products can be donated, it’s worthwhile to look into this option and find a donation partner within your community.  


Composting is an alternative to disposing of food in a landfill. Certain elements of foods can be turned into compost to feed and nourish the soil, helping to cultivate new growth. Park and recreation agencies, like those in Lansing, Michigan, have utilized composting bins to re-purpose the food for their community gardens. This provides the additional benefit of educating youth about the process of how food is grown.  

By implementing new policies and procedures, park and recreation agencies are helping to reduce and eliminate the 80 billion pounds of food waste dumped into landfills each year, leading to more sustainable meal programs.  

Allison Colman is NRPA’s Program Manager.