green lunchroom two girls in the school lunch line and smiling

Green Lunchroom: 5 Tips for a Sustainable School Cafeteria

Across the U.S., school nutrition professionals prepare and serve healthy school meals for 30 million students across the country every day, and it’s tough to find the time to implement green lunchroom initiatives.

At the average school, a huge portion of lunches end up in the trash along with plastic cutlery, Styrofoam trays and other waste that is harmful to the environment. On top of that, food waste costs the nation’s schools billions of dollars over the past few decades.

K-12 schools have a special role in reducing negative environmental impacts while educating the next generation about taking care of our planet.

If you want to make your lunchroom green, it’s time to brainstorm ways to redesign your sustainable school cafeteria. Here are five tips to get you started.

Serve sustainable foods in your green lunchroom.

Sustainability starts with the food you’re serving! Process foods and low-quality meats can be extremely carbon intensive. Replace processed foods with fresh whenever possible. Bonus points for organic ingredients! Check out the National Farm to School Network to connect with area farmers to incorporate local food into your cafeteria.

Reduce & recycle single-use plastic and other harmful materials.

Think about how many of those students are eating off of polystyrene trays with plastic cutlery. That’s a lot of plastic that gets thrown out each day!

Switching from disposable trays and utensils to reusable ones will reduce your waste tremendously after just one day. No dishwasher? No problem—there are many compostable alternatives on the market.  You can also get creative by upcycling these products. Milk cartons make great planters for growing your own ingredients and are great for classroom crafts!

Go paperless.

Does your district send home paper menus each week or month? All of that paper can add up quickly. Consider going paperless and moving your menus online for students and parents to access anytime from anywhere!

Digital menu boards are another green solution to implement in the lunchroom. Not only will these solutions keep you from wasting paper, but they’re also shown to increase program participation by engaging your tech-savvy students. Learn more about the Meals Plus digital menu suite here.

Start a school garden for growing ingredients and composting.

The most environmentally-friendly way to get food is to grow it yourself on-site! In addition to reducing processed foods in your lunchroom, school gardens can be a great educational tool when you get students involved.

Students learn about where their food comes from and how they can grow their own sustainable foods at home while encouraging teamwork. Keep your garden nutrient-rich while reducing food waste by starting a composting program. Compost bins are a low-cost and low-maintenance option to efficiently transform your lunchroom waste! Even without a garden, you can still compost! Check out the US Composting Council to find online resources on getting started in your state.

Reduce food waste while serving your community.

The USDA strongly encourages schools to donate leftover foods to appropriate nonprofit institutions provided this practice is not prohibited by state or local laws and regulations. Instead of throwing out excess wholesome food, collect it after meal times to donate to food pantries.

Share tables are also a great way to reduce waste. Students can place milk and packaged or pre-portioned items they aren’t going to eat on the table to share with students who need it.

Allowing students to make conscious choices on how they use their waste can improve, not only your schools but also your student’s attitudes. Options such as food to be shared and donated, trash, recycling, and compostable are all great choices for your students to make.