Reducing Food Waste at Schools

In light of the Massachusetts Food Waste Disposal Ban and growing popularity of school gardens and composting, THE GREEN TEAM has compiled a list of links, lesson plans and how-to’s to help teachers introduce these topics into their classrooms and schools. If your school is interested in implementing a food waste diversion or composting program, please request help on the registration form or email THE GREEN TEAM. We have resources to help you start a compost program, request free equipment, and offer expert technical assistance. We’d love to help!

Massachusetts Food Waste Disposal Ban:

On October 1, 2014, commercial organic material from certain facilities was added to the list of banned materials at solid waste facilities. Just as recyclable paper, card­board, bottles, cans, leaves and yard waste are banned from disposal in Massachusetts, commercial food waste from certain facilities is restricted from disposal, contracting for disposal, or transferring for disposal. Banned commercial organic material is defined as food and vege­tative material from businesses and institutions that dispose of one ton or more of that material per week. Learn more about the ban on commercial organics disposal on

As part of the 2020-2030 Solid Waste Master Plan, MassDEP’s proposed changes to the waste ban regulations to add mattresses and textiles as banned materials, and lowered the threshold of the existing commercial organics waste ban so that it applies to entities that generate one-half (½) ton or more of commercial organic material per week are effective as of November 1, 2022. The MassDEP estimates that approximately 30 schools may be subject to the reduced threshold of the commercial organics waste ban. Using the RecyclingWorks Food Waste Estimation Guide, schools that meet the following criteria may be subject to the lowered organics waste ban threshold:

  • Elementary schools with 885 or more students
  • Middle schools with 1,370 or more students
  • High schools with 2,855 or more students

Please note that this should be considered a starting point for estimating food waste generation, as actual food waste generated can vary widely from one facility to another. Schools that serve multiple meals per day or cafeterias that act as a central kitchen for multiple schools are likely to exceed these estimates. Please email THE GREEN TEAM if you have questions on your school’s food waste generation.

Regardless of the food waste disposal ban, THE GREEN TEAM encourages all schools to reduce and divert food waste from the solid waste stream and use this action as a learning opportunity for your students.

THE GREEN TEAM Presents: Compost for the Earth (The Compost Song), July 2021

In this video, join MassDEP’s Ann McGovern as she leads a sing-a-long illustrating the benefits and principles of composting. For more in-depth composting instruction, watch Composting at School & at Home, or try THE GREEN TEAM’s Composting Lesson Plan.


What is Compost?
Compost is decomposed organic material, such as plants and leftover food, and is also called “humus,” a dark brown component of soil rich in plant nutrients. Composting is the oldest form of recycling. Composting is managing the decomposition process, through which naturally occurring soil organisms recycle nitrogen, potash, phosphorus, and other plant nutrients as they convert the material into humus. 

Composting at schools can help students understand concepts such as decomposition and energy cycles, while reducing the amount of organic material going to landfills or incinerators.

**Prior to starting a compost program, encourage your school to reduce food waste. Careful preparation in the kitchen and encouraging healthy eating can do wonders to reduce the amount of waste generated. Consider instituting a “Share Table” in your cafeteria for unwanted items that can be taken by other students during lunch.  See more links below on waste reduction.

Proper signage is an important part of any food waste reduction program. By clearly labeling all recycling, food scraps, and trash containers, you can help reduce contamination and increase participation in your programs.

THE GREEN TEAM has created easy-to-download signage that can be used for a variety of waste programs, including recycling, composting, share tables, and more!

How to Divert Food Waste from Disposal:

There are several ways you can divert school food waste from disposal. Factors include volume, cost, available resources, and participation.

  1. Schools can vermicompost!  You can make a low cost “worm bin” and add small amounts of fruit and vegetable waste and watch the worms turn the material into vermicompost, the best type of compost there is!
  2. Schools can compost on-site using outdoor compost bins such as the ones offered by THE GREEN TEAM.  Finished compost can be used beneficially in school gardens or school landscaping.  Some schools divert all food waste using multiple bins.
  3. Schools can connect with local farmers and divert food waste to feed animals.  Local, long term relationships are helpful in establishing these programs and keeping them active.
  4. Schools can contract for commercial collection just like they do for trash and recycling.  This usually incurs a cost, but the management involved in composting the waste on-site is eliminated.  Commercial programs may also accept other compostable materials in addition to food waste.


Mass DEP and THE GREEN TEAM Present: Composting at School and at Home, March 13, 2021

Compost at school, at your institution, or at home using an indoor worm bin or outdoor compost bin for sustainability and integrated science learning of life science standards. Information will be provided on how to make your own worm bin and get a free voucher for red wiggler earthworms from MassDEP’s GREEN TEAM program for your school or institution. Also, learn how to get and use an outdoor compost bin from MassDEP’s GREEN TEAM program for your school or institution. Great tie-in with gardening and sustainable life skills, as well as hands-on biology, for students at school or at home.

The GREEN TEAM Source Separation Instructional Video, April 19, 2018

Video demonstrating how to implement a successful source separation program at school, length 9:41. This video features two schools located in Franklin County, which is a leader in school food waste diversion through composting.

THE GREEN TEAM Hingham High School Case Study Video, July 3, 2019
This case study demonstrates how Hingham High School successfully incorporates food waste reduction, recycling, composting, and sustainability practices into their school operations and educational programs.

What you can compost:
What you can divert with your compost program depends on how and where it is being managed. Know what you can manage in an on-site program and confirm what is acceptable with any off-site vendor you may divert to.

  • Schools composting on-site should only add vegetative food scraps (fruits, vegetables, etc.) to their bins. They can also add biodegradable paper, such as napkins, bags, waxed paper, waxed cardboard and paperboard trays. They should not add meats, dairy or fats to avoid odors and pest issues. Rodent-proofing on-site compost bins is a good practice to follow.
  • Schools diverting to farms for animal feed can only divert food waste. Pigs and cows don’t like paper or compostable utensils.
  • Schools diverting to commercial programs can usually divert all food waste, including meat and dairy products. Additionally, they can compost waxed cardboard, paper napkins and certified compostable disposable products. Specific acceptable items are defined by each composting facility, so check with them before setting up your program.

How to get and use a free compost bin from THE GREEN TEAM:
Green Team members may request a compost bin or worms through this application! Schools are encouraged to request one compost bin to start, and may request additional bins, as needed, after the first bin is up and running successfully.

THE GREEN TEAM How to Compost at School video
Video demonstrating how to compost at schools, length 4:45.


THE GREEN TEAM How to Set Up the New Age Composter
Video demonstrating how to set up the compost bin available from THE GREEN TEAM, length 6:51.


Any Massachusetts school planning to compost food waste on-site must notify their local Board of Health and regional office of MassDEP, 30 days in advance of starting the program, as a “Small Composting Operation not at a Residence,” using this form.

Lesson Plans & Materials
Compost Lesson Plan – Students observe soil organisms in a compost sample, then fill a compost bin with organic wastes and observe the decomposition of the organic wastes into humus during the school year. Covers a discussion/observation session and details bin set-up.
Food Web of the Compost Pile –  A 8.5×11 illustration of the food web of decomposers that carry out the composting process.
Composting is Easy! – A well-illustrated poster of the different components and maintenance of a compost pile.
Outline for  a Home Composting Presentation (MassDEP) – An outline and script for containing all the basic information to include in a home composting presentation.
Vermicomposting: Indoor Composting with Worms –  Fact sheet on how to set up and manage an indoor worm bin.
Lunch Against Landfill: Us vs. Waste –  Set up a composting system to wipe out food waste in your cafeteria. Your system can be small or large, indoor or outdoor, and on school grounds or off-site. Provided by the Alliance for Climate Education (ACE).
World Wildlife Foundation – The World Wildlife Foundation provides lessons, activities, and resources for reducing food waste in the cafeteria. Students will continue learning in the lunchroom with these lessons that can be adjusted for grades 5-12.
Waste-Free Snack Challenge – Green Education Foundation’s Waste-Free Snack Challenge Students pledge to carry their drinks and snacks in reusable containers for a week, encouraging reuse, and reducing their snack waste.
Food: Waste Less and Enjoy! Make it Happen Checklist – Fuel Up to Play 60 is an in-school nutrition and physical activity program launched by National Dairy Council and NFL, in collaboration with the USDA, to help encourage consumption of nutritious food and food waste reduction.
Natural Resources Defense Council – NRDC’s “Wasting Less Food In K-12 Settings: Best Practices For Success” highlights best practices for preventing food waste, ensuring that food surpluses reach people in need, and recycling food scraps.
What a Waste of Food! Lesson Plans and PowerPoint – Purdue University Extension has developed a free kit including lesson plans and PowerPoints to help teachers educate students about food waste and how they can help reduce it.
PBS Kids Go Green: Reducing Food Waste – Standards-aligned videos, lesson plans, and teaching tips for grades K-5 from the Human Impact on the Environment collection.


School Manuals & External Resources

Food Waste Diversion Guide for Schools  –  The Green Team guide on how to plan and implement a food waste diversion program.
Starting a School Recycling Program  –  The Green Team guide on how to plan and implement a recycling program.
Farm (and Sea) to Schools “AND BACK” – This informative presentation focuses on the values and processes of implementing successful recycling and composting programs in schools.
What You Can Do To Help Prevent Wasted Food  –  This booklet from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) includes tips for nutrition professionals, teachers, administrators, parents, and students on how to reduce wasted food in schools.
Food Waste Audits – Guide for Schools – The guide, published by the USDA and EPA is an easy-to-follow roadmap that students, teachers and staff can use to investigate what food is going to waste in their cafeterias, and learn how to implement solutions for preventing and reducing student waste.
Food Waste Minimization Toolkit for Iowa Schools  – This toolkit, developed in Iowa, assists school administrators and nutrition staff in maintaining a sustainable balance in reducing food insecurity and waste. 
School Cafeteria Discards Assessment Project (SCrAP) – A nationwide data collection program to quantify food and related waste generated in cafeterias of K-12 schools. Register to share your school’s waste management practices and help guide future policy initiatives to minimize waste at schools nationwide.
Massachusetts’ School Meal Programs Share Table Guidance – This guidance, from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, describes how to implement a share table program to safely share uneaten packaged food and whole fruits in the cafeteria.
Food Sharing Tables – Guidance for Schools – This guidance, written by the state of Vermont, provides instruction for setting up “sharing tables” in school cafeterias to reduce the amount of wasted food by sharing unwanted items with classmates.
A Manual for Implementing School Recycling Programs  –  Information on how to set up and maintain school recycling and composting programs.
MassDEP School Composting Resource Package – A collection of resources on composting for teachers and school officials.
Andover High School On-Site Cafeteria Composting Manual, 2011-2012 – A manual developed for Andover High School’s on-site cafeteria composting program.
Andover High School Off-Site Cafeteria Composting Manual, 2012-2013 –  A manual developed for Andover High School’s off-site cafeteria composting program.
Andover High School Cafeteria Composting Program Update, Jan. 2014 – Andover High School’s cafeteria composting program update.
School Composting: A Manual for CT Schools – This manual, written specifically for K-12 schools, outlines the steps necessary for establishing and maintaining a successful school-wide on-site composting program for cafeteria food scraps.
Florida’s Online Composting Center:  – This website includes a composting tutorial and general information on composting.
Composting Videos from Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection  – “Home Composting; Turning Your Spoils To Soil” 17 min. Excellent “how-to-compost” video suitable for classrooms, workshops, libraries and other educational outreach.
Cambridge Public Schools Cafeteria Separation System – An example of effective lunchroom waste separation system at the Cambridge Public Schools
School Food Recovery Handbook – National Resources Council of Maine has created nation’s first food recovery hierarchy tailored specifically for schools describing how food waste is shaped by the school environment and provides specific actions schools can take to reduce food waste.
Massachusetts Farm to School School-Wide Composting Webinar – Massachusetts Farm to School recently produced a webinar on School-Wide Composting and Curricular Tie-ins. The webinar slides were posted to their website along with a recording of the webinar.
Reducing Food Waste in K-12 Schools: Strategies for Prevention, Donation, and Recycling – The Center for EcoTechnology recently hosted this webinar, which includes information about many topics related to reducing food waste in schools, including share tables and external food donation.

Focus on Waste Reduction with the following links:

EPA Food Recovery Challenge – Schools can join the EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge and pledge to reduce waste food.
USDA Offer versus Serve (OVS) Guidance – OVS is a provision in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program that allows students to decline food they do not intend to eat. This guidance from the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture outlines how to implement OVS to reduce food waste in the school meals programs.
Waste Free Lunches – This website contains a lot of useful information about the ways in which student lunch waste can be minimized before composting and recycling. Check out the “Links” page for several good resources.
EPA Reuse & Recycling = Waste Reduction – A manual full of helpful tips on different types of school waste reduction programs.
Food Recovery Hierarchy – The EPA’s food recovery hierarchy prioritizes actions schools can take to reduce the amount of wasted food.
Oakland Unified School District School Food Donation Program Guide – Guidance document about food donation developed through a pilot program conducted by the Oakland Unified School District with support from the nonprofit organization Food Shift.
USDA Food Donation Resources – Guidance on food donation from school cafeterias.
California Integrated Waste Management Board – Provides tips and resources for setting up or improving an existing school waste reduction program.
One Less Straw Campaign – Schools can sign up and take the pledge to hand out plastic straws only if requested.
K-12 School Food Recovery Roadmap – This roadmap was developed based on the successes of steps and initiatives taken by the Oakland and San Diego School Districts in California. The roadmap can be customized for any state, municipality, or school district to develop a food waste reduction & recovery program.
Save The Food  – A campaign, sponsored by the AdCouncil and National Resource Defense Council. Schools can use campaign videos and posters to spread the word about reducing wasted food at school or at home.