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School cafeteria leftovers can feed the community

Good Samaritan Act allows schools to donate items that would otherwise go to waste
Packaged items, crackers, milk, fruits and vegetables are among the items most often donated by schools.
Packaged items, crackers, milk, fruits and vegetables are among the items most often donated by schools.

A widespread belief that it’s illegal to give away extra or uneaten school food no longer has any basis in reality. In 2011, the federal Good Samaritan Act was amended to cover schools, so certain uneaten items can be donated, instead of going to waste.

Los Angeles USD launched “Healthy Students, Healthy Families, Healthy Communities,” an initiative that offers excess food to local charities and nonprofits such as food banks, the Salvation Army and faith-based outreach programs. The program now encompasses 117 school sites and 26 community organizations, and continues to grow.

Charitable organizations apply for food, and once approved they are connected with meal programs at nearby schools. After lunch has been served, the nonprofits pick up safe leftovers from cafeteria staff.

Packaged items, crackers, milk, fruits and vegetables are among the most donated items.

“It can be touch-and-go based on how popular the item is that day,” says Laura Benavidez, deputy director of LAUSD food services. “The organizations expect to get a meal, but sometimes the kids eat everything and there’s not much left over.”

The USDA U.S. Food Waste Challenge provides resources for schools interested in similar programs—such as Food Rescue, which partners with more than 200 K12 schools nationwide to facilitate leftover food donations.

Other districts partner with farmers to reuse food waste as feed and compost. In Minnesota, multiple schools collect organic cafeteria waste and send it to hog farms, where it serves as food for the less-than-finicky creatures.

LAUSD also promotes its “Save It For Later” program, in which students are encouraged to take food items for later consumption.

Some districts prefer to keep excess food in-house. Kansas City Public Schools encourages share tables, where students can leave certain uneaten food items for other students.

“We tell the children, ‘Take all you want, but eat what you take,’” says Ellen Cram, director of child nutrition for Kansas City Public Schools. “Leftover items can be put on the shared table so another student in the same meal line can have a second milk or banana so it doesn’t go to waste.”