How 'Share Tables' Are Helping Schools Fight Child Hunger And Food Waste

"Food insecurity is a major issue."

Despite the fact that both parents and teachers regularly encourage children to try new foods, picky eaters find ways to avoid the "weird stuff" at all costs. Yet, while children often abandon undesirable foods at the bottom of their lunchbox or toss them in the trash when no one's looking, many schools have instituted "share tables," which aim to fight food waste and child hunger.

Students are advised to put unwanted food and drinks on the share table during lunch. While they may simply leave items they don't want to eat, students are also welcome to trade their contribution for something else they'd rather consume. Not only do share tables help reduce food waste by giving unwanted items a second life, but they also provide hungry students with access to a more balanced lunch, as all things placed on the share table are free for the taking. Children need not pay, nor make an even exchange, to enjoy what's available.

While share tables certainly welcome nonperishable food items, such as granola bars, unopened juice boxes, and other wrapped items, many schools also encourage children to donate unwanted bananas, oranges, apples, and other such fruits and vegetables that have a skin or are wrapped in plastic. Some districts might even offer refrigeration, allowing children with unwanted milk or yogurt to donate their goods, as well.

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According to the United States Department of Agriculture's official memo about share tables, this practice serves as an "innovative strategy to encourage the consumption of nutritious foods and reduce food waste" in schools. The USDA outlines that foods and drinks donated via share tables may be used in the following ways:

  • Children may take an additional helping of a food or beverage item from the share table at no cost;

Food or beverage items left on the share table may be served and claimed for reimbursement during another meal service (i.e., during an afterschool program when leftover from a school lunch); and/or

  • Food or beverage items may be donated to a non-profit organization, such as a community food bank, homeless shelter or other non-profit charitable organization 

  • Unfortunately, food waste has become a mounting problem throughout the U.S. According to the USDA, we currently waste nearly 40 percent of our food supply. As the Natural Resources Defense Council notes, that's an estimated $165 billion worth of food, which could help feed the 13.1 million American households with children. Yet, despite this surplus, nearly 13 million children face hunger every day because, as Bryan Stallings, co-founder of food pantry Jesus Was Homeless, explained to CNN, the government's strict health restrictions force restaurants and schools to throw away excess food instead of donating it to those in need.

    Countless school systems, however, have begun to adopt share tables as an antidote to both issues, with some states instituting laws that guarantee schools waste less and hungry kids eat more.

    In late 2017, for instance, leaders passed the Texas Student Fairness In Feeding Act, which acknowledges the fact that, for many children, the meals they eat at school are the only meals they receive all day. Now, schools are allowed to "donate excess food to nonprofits to redistribute to children attending the campus."

    "Food insecurity is a major issue. It's a challenge all districts face. It is a huge problem within our district, so a bill like this that has passed, our students are really the ones that are going to benefit from it," Jenny Arredondo, San Antonio ISD's child nutrition senior executive director, told KSAT.

    While parents are often initially wary of the concept -- after all, it implies that their child might not be eating the nutritious food they pack for them each morning -- mothers like Katy Anderson now understand the benefits of share tables and why such resources are important for those facing food inequality in a world where so much goes to waste.

    "I often worry that my son is not eating enough at school, but now those fears have been diminished," writes for Babble. "With the share table in place, I know that if he doesn't want to eat what I packed for him, he may pick up something off the table (even if it's not the healthy snack I had hoped he'd devour). I also try to pack extra food and encourage my kids to place it, and anything else they won't eat, on the share table so that another child will be nourished."

    To learn more about setting up a share table at your child's school cafeteria, the Alameda County School District's "Stop Waste" program has created a comprehensive step-by-step guide to help parents and administrators ensure that this resource meets food safety guidelines. Follow these tips to guarantee students receive the nutrition they need to grow strong and healthy.

    Cover image via Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

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