University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

So you've got food waste. Now what?

Even when you've done everything you can on the front-end to prevent food waste, some waste is still inevitable.

1. Share tables are a great way to make use of unwanted items.

Still-hungry students can take eligible items during the meal period, but there are other options beyond the share table:

  • Items can be claimed for reimbursement during another meal service.
  • Shelf-stable foods and beverages can be sent home with students through a backpack program.
  • Share table items can be used to supplement in-school food pantries.
  • Items can be donated to non-profit organizations, such as food pantries, food banks, homeless shelters, etc.

Note that these are subject to approval from the local health department.

2. Send items home with students through an in-school food pantry and/or backpack program.

If you are interested in learning more about school food pantries or backpack programs, check out these toolkits from non-profit organizations:

No Kid Hungry - Promising Practices for Starting & Maintaining a School Food Pantry

Feeding America - Backpack Program

Food for Free - Weekend Backpack Program Toolkit

3. Food donation is another great way to support your community.

For food donation, you might need some help finding those external food recovery opportunities. A good way to get started is by being in touch with your local Extension office, as they are likely already connected with food banks, food pantries, and other organizations that would be ideal for partnerships. Another way to network is to participate in area coalitions and councils on hunger and nutrition. Of course, online searches are always quick and an easy way to find potential partners.

4. For foods and beverages that cannot be put on the share table, consider doing a tray waste study.

Tray waste studies can help identify where updates to the menu may be needed. You can also measure waste of just one component, like broccoli before and after using a new seasoning. For more information about tray waste studies, send us an email at

5. If your school has the resources, you may also be interested in composting.

Composting is a way of recycling food scraps and other organic materials. There are several benefits:

  • Adding compost to soils returns nutrient that support soil health
  • Removing food waste from the trash may significantly reduce trash volume
  • Composting is an opportunity to educate students on the connections between wasted food and the environment

On the downside, a compost area needs to be maintained to keep out pests and prevent odors. Labor will also be required to empty food scraps and turn the compost often. Students can help with this, but will likely require adult supervision.

Mindful Waste is an organization with how-to information on different types of composting and troubleshooting guides.

There are many tools at your disposal (pun intended!) to tackle food waste in the cafeteria. Put some of these strategies into action and watch your food waste decrease!