Breaking News: Donating Wasted School Food

[Ed Note: There may be a local ordinance here in Houston, of which I and the district were unaware when I wrote this post back in August, that prevents donation of previously-served food.  I’m looking into this and will report back.]

My fellow HISD/Aramark Food Services Parent Advisory Committee member, Lisa Murry, writes a great blog called First Class Breakfast? which reports on the new, universal in-class breakfast program instituted in our district last year.

Because breakfast is not an “offer vs. serve” meal (i.e., students must take all parts of the meal for it to be reimbursable by the federal government), there’s a huge amount of waste, and one of the most valuable aspects of Lisa’s blog has been her photos of the untouched food routinely discarded by the students from the breakfast – tables full of sealed milk and juice cartons, uneaten whole fruit and unopened packaged foods all headed for the trash (see, e.g., here and here).

More than one parent has wondered aloud why this food can’t be donated to charity, but our district has maintained the position that donation is legally prohibited.  I was at a PTO meeting where representatives of HISD food services explained that the regulations were in place due to health concerns:  children — possibly carrying colds and other viruses — had touched the food, so that even if it was unopened, it still could spread illness.

That explanation never quite sat right with me.  After all, every item we buy in the supermarket has been touched by many, many hands, and no one is screening any of those handlers for illnesses.   Nonetheless, I let the issue drop.  Then a few weeks ago, an Indiana reader sent me this:

I teach at a school in a suburb of Indianapolis, IN. The amount of waste in our lunchroom makes me physically ill. I’m not talking about half eaten portions of pasta, I’m talking about kids throwing away unopened, individually wrapped food such as goldfish,animal cookies, yogurt, etc. Also, when the cafeteria serves whole apples, etc., as a fresh fruit, hundreds of whole, untouched apples go into the trash. Last year, I tried to start a collection program for foods like these to donate to our local food bank. Basically, at clean up time, I would go around the cafe and ask kids if I could have the unopened packages of food they were not going to eat. I was told I could get in huge trouble for doing this. There are guidelines that say that you cannot take food from the kids’ lunches, even if they want to give it. So, we stopped. Yesterday was a goldfish package day again. I sat with my own first grade twins for a while at lunch and collected unopened packages to keep in my desk for after school snacks. It just kills me to see all of this food getting thrown away.

That email inspired me to write about food waste, although my only intention was to decry this seemingly irrational regulation prohibiting donation to charity.  But first I needed to find the regulation in question, so I contacted my district’s food services to find out more.  My contact there was kind enough to investigate for me and then told me that the USDA had apparently revised its policy and that “districts may now release leftover food to charitable nonprofit organizations under the following conditions . . . ”  I’ve attached these conditions in a Word document here but to summarize, a district has to (1)  take care not to create waste in the first place by over-ordering; (2) be sure that health codes are followed, and (3) enter into what looks like a pretty standard written agreement with the charity.

While I’m not doubting my district’s claim that the USDA revised its policy on food waste donation at some point, I do wonder when this policy change actually occurred.  I did some searching on the USDA website and found documents going back as far as the mid-90’s that seem to indicate that food donation was acceptable to the USDA even back then.  (I even found this document from 1998 showing that the USDA was offering detailed guidance — and at that time, even some financial support — for food donation programs at schools.) But there may be details about the history of the food donation policy that I’m missing.

Another interesting fact I learned from the USDA’s site is that all fifty states have “Good Samaritan” laws in place which protect donors of “gleaned” food from liability.  That is, absent gross negligence (like donating obviously spoiled food) or an actual intent to do harm (e.g., tampered-with food), a donor will face no liability if the donated food does cause illness.  (Here’s a short, readable summary of Texas’s Good Samaritan law.)

So as far as I can tell, there are now no obstacles preventing a district anywhere in the country from donating uneaten food.  The only other question is, does anyone want it?

To answer that question, this morning I called the Houston Food Bank, an organization which feeds over 800,000 food-insecure Houstonians each year.  When I described the types of food HISD schools might be able to donate from our breakfast program, I was told by a HFB spokesperson that while the juice and milk couldn’t be donated (because there is no way to verify that it’s been kept at a controlled temperature), all of the nonperishable items like whole fruit, graham crackers, etc. are more than welcome.

So, bottom line:  if you’re alarmed by food waste in your cafeteria and are being told by your district that you can’t legally donate school food, push back.  Ask some more questions, and send this post if you need to.

On my end, I’m going to see if I can rally support for a coordinated donation program in my own district.  It’s important to remember that the district would first need to enter into a written contract with the charity in question, and I do realize that  collecting and transporting food would take a real commitment from school volunteers.  But why not involve the students themselves?  Let one child be appointed each morning to gather up uneaten food and place it in a box outside the door for a parent volunteer to collect.

I can think of no better way to remind our children that there are those less fortunate than themselves, and to make a meaningful reduction in food waste that many parents regard as unconscionable.


  1. Stephanie says

    YAY!! This has been a question that I receive all the time about the waste in our cafeterias, and in the Breakfast in the Classroom program (in HISD). I think that those same unopened packages of crackers and fresh fruits could also easily be collected at lunchtime by the classroom and then used the following day for snack, either during recess or at dismissal. (At least at the elementary level.)
    Armed with this new information I will be sitting down with my school’s principal to request such action be taken. Our principal last year was so dismayed to see WHOLE CASES of bananas (only because they had brown spots) being dumped into the garbage.
    I am pretty sure that she is not the only one, and I know there are a ton of parents who would push for this as well!
    Thanks Bettina for always helping me to keep my eyes and heart open for some positive change.

    • trish k says

      I have just been able to become more involved with the school my children attend, and this topic is heavy on my heart. There is so much need within our school alone, and feel that using it during snack time would be a huge benefit! I that I feel this topic needs to be discussed. Thank you for this comment!

      • Bettina Elias Siegel says

        Trish – It’s SO hard to see so much food waste. I know some schools do collect unopened packaged foods and uneaten whole fruit and informally get that food to kids who need it.

    • Donna says

      Oh my, I am soooooo excited about this article. I work at a middle school and am appalled at the wasted food. Please send any new information to help me start a program in my school district.

  2. Donna says

    I agree with Stephanie that most of these schools have needs even among their own student body. These items can be used in after-school programs, for classroom snacks, or can be made available for the food-insecure families who qualify for free/reduced lunch (or, frankly, for any family.) Are there any rules prohibiting this?

  3. orell fitzsimmons says

    This would also give us a look at how much waste there is and open a discussion about why. It would be interesting to see how many extra dumpster are needed to collect the not used food and how much HISD pays for extra dumpsters every year. It would like to know how much extra profit is Aramark making producing all the extra food. If we took a look ,we will most likely find millions of dollars to redirect to educating our children or even better, buying quality food for them to eat at lunch.

  4. says

    Thanks for this illuminating, gripping post with a happy ending. I hope your research bears fruit in inspiring other school districts to do the same.

    I blog about reducing food waste and have a book on the topic coming out in October (American Wasteland), so I was thrilled to see your real world application of ideas and laws I’ve been writing about for a while.

    Two quick thoughts:
    –“Offer vs. serve” saves so much food from being wasted. Any idea why it isn’t used in your district at breakfast, too?
    –From what I understand, donating food from schools was never prohibited, but it was thought to be. The USDA clarified this in the mid-90’s under Sec of Ag Dan Glickman, with then-gleaning guru Joel Berg (now at New York City Coalition Against Hunger ) straightening out the misunderstanding.

    • bettina elias siegel says

      Jonathan: Welcome to The Lunch Tray! I’m currently trying to find out why our breakfast isn’t OVS – I’d thought there must be some prohibition on OVS for breakfast but now know that’s not the case. And as for donating, I do wonder why it took my district a decade to find out the correct policy re: donation, but am, at any rate, happy that we can begin to set up a donation process. Look forward to hearing from you again. – Bettina

  5. mary t. says

    One of the tasks at the Houston Food Bank is sterilizing the donated packaged foods before they are packed for distribution. I’ve done it, and every can, juice pouch, box of mac n’cheese is wiped down with sterilizing solution, so along with the “Good Samaritan” law, it makes the objection about unsanitary food ridiculous.

    • bettina elias siegel says

      Mary: I had no idea they were already doing that. (In fact, when HISD told us that the issue was germs, I was going to raise my hand and suggest that sort of cleaning, but it seemed too labor intensive so I kept quiet). All the more reason why we need to get a donation program going. Many thanks for the comment. – Bettina

      • mary t. says

        It is labor intensive (but fun once you get the hang of it), and the Food Bank can use all the volunteers they can get. They not only help stock the local food banks that actually distribute food, they also have a program for children who rely on school breakfast and lunch during the week to ensure they get some food for the weekend–teachers can slip “care packages” into the backpacks of needy students on Fridays. I can’t remember what the program is called, though.

        • bettina elias siegel says

          Mary: I think it’s “Backpack Buddies.” And your info is so helpful – I’m going to mention it to HISD when we next talk about donation. – Bettina

  6. Cynthia says

    I am so grateful that I ran into this website. My kids are in HISD also and this morning the school served a breakfast of apples, small yogurt cups, blueberry muffins and milk.

    I was sick to my stomach to see how many of those items in “unopened” condition were thrown into the garbage. I took 4 apples home (2 from my kids and 2 apples that were just sitting on the table we sat at).

    My kids and I want to start something at our school to rescue this food. What about the perishable food such as fruit? I thought if food banks can’t accept it, then why not have the cafeteria line put it into large bowls so that a kid can take an apple if they want one.

    Other thought: my youngest is going through the phase of losing teeth so her gums are tender. Even at home, she will not bite into a whole apple or large slices of apple but she will eat thinly sliced apples.

    I bet that the cafeteria service could make do with fewer food options that are served in a more appetizing way: thinly slicing apples for kindergardners and 1st graders with missing teeth.

    We had the same thought: why can’t they save the perishables for “snack” time in the classrooms? The food is already paid for. There are kids in my children’s classrooms that come to school with lunch boxes full of candy and no sandwich, no fruit. I kid you not, I’ve seen it with my own eyeballs.

    If they put the fruit out during the lunches like a produce display at the grocery store the kids could choose for themselves. Better yet, if they convinced the cafeteria to stop offering those refined carbohydrate baked things they offer for breakfast and lunch, they hungry kids will hopefully gravitate towards the food.

    It’s like the rule we have in my home: if you’re hungry, there’s a basket of fruit in the fridge. If you don’t want to eat fruit (because you want candy or cookies) then you’re not hungry enough!

    I would love to collaborate with you guys on this. We’re approaching a season when the need for food is so much greater because of its symbolic meaning of abundance.

    Quick note: I haven’t researched this but wouldn’t the school district be able to take a tax write off on donated food since they paid for it?


    • bettina elias siegel says

      Cynthia – as it turns out, there may be a legal impediment to donation that I learned of after writing this post, and it may also apply to putting a bowl out at lunch . I’m waiting to speak to a contact at HISD and will post here about it asap. But in the meantime, re: sliced fruit — HISD is getting a huge, industrial fruit slicer through a grant program, but as of now the thought is that it will only be used for oranges. Food Services claims that sliced apples can’t be prevented from turning brown, although it’s not clear to me why the slices can’t be soaked briefly in lemon water (or water with citric acid) before transport. When I post again about donation, I’ll email you directly with the link, but for now I’m so glad you found The Lunch Tray, and thank you for commenting! – Bettina

      • Cynthia says

        Hi Betina,

        Thank you for your reply. I’ll keep following your blog. There has to be a solution to this. Today, it was bananas going into the garbage. I’m going to have to stop sitting in front of the garbage cans in the morning.

        Warmest regards,

  7. April Vince says

    Hello all. It makes me so pleased to find I am not alone in this journey! I am currently trying to start a program at my daughter’s elementary school to give the unused food to charity. I was recently asked to draft a document that the charity can sign off on allowing the school to give them the food with no liability to the school/reprecussions. Does anyone have acces to this type of document or have a recommendation where I caould research the legal aspects I need to cover? I appreciate any information.

  8. Amy says

    I see these are old postings, but I had to put in my two cents. I am the school nurse at a large high school in Arizona. At the end of the last school year I was given a large glass-faced fridge by one of the administrators. I was looking forward to housing uneaten fruits and packaged foods from our cafeteria free breakfast program. I hoped to hand out these food items throughout each school day, to students whom were having difficulty concentrating in class because they were hungry. I was appauled when that same administrator informed me that housing these items was considered “harboring goverment property.” …Really? I am so irritated with the amount of food wasted each day at our school. Over the week, the cartons of milk left from breakfast alone, can completely fill a large refrigerator. Over 30 apples each morning are left uneaten. I am so passionate about this, but am so overwhelmed with sick kids in the health center here, and my own two children’s needs at home, that I don’t have the time to sit down and give this issue the justice and attention it deserves. I hope someone can do something to fix this! My issue is wanting to find a way to give the leftovers to the kids AT SCHOOL throughout the school day…THEY WANT THE FRUIT over the candybar, and it gives me chills up and down my arms when a student asks me for fruit. Just wish I could give it to him/her!!!!

    • Catherine says

      I am having the same problem in Massachusetts. One of my school nurses started a program of obtaining the fresh fruit and juice from breakfast that was not eaten. She was able to treat hunger with a piece of fruit and send the child back to class instead of sending them home because they had a stomach ache and didn’t feel well. We were recently informed that this was against the health regulations. I have spoken with the board of health and the food service provider. In order to do this safely, I need to create a written procedure that is agreed on by the superintendent, school committee, etc.; I need to have the lunch duty aids become serve safe certified; I have to have the nurses monitor the temperatures of their refrigerators; and I have to get parent permission prior to feeding the kids food that has been touched by other kids (even though it was washed). Seems like a lot of work for something that should be common sense.

      • Bettina Elias Siegel says

        Catherine: Oh, that does sound aggravating. What I think goes on here in my district is that leftover food gets reserved to hungry kids in an informal, under the radar sort of way. But when we raised the issue of donation to food banks, that’s when we were told no, even if the food were cleaned by the food bank (which they do as a matter of course). I understand the rationale when it comes to taking food off of diners’ plates in restaurants, but a packaged muffin or a whole orange seems very different. Thanks for sharing your experiences here.

  9. Michael says

    Bettina, did you ever find out about the legal impediment to donating food? I have been told by numerous educators and administrators about a legal impediment associated with the free lunch programs. I have not been able to find anything concrete as the govt website is practically unnavigable. Please let me know if anyone has more detailed info about this. Regards.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Michael: Here in Houston the obstacle is a city ordinance prohibiting the sale of “previously served” food. That is, even if a child doesn’t open a milk carton or packaged food item, it can’t be donated. Every now and then I hear of efforts to get an exception made to the ordinance to allow for the donation of packaged, unopened school food but, to date, I don’t think anyone has followed through.

  10. Amy Gibson says

    I have recently started asking questions about restaurant leftovers donation after reading about a non-profit in California that developed an application to facilitate listing and delivering leftovers. I’m in San Antonio and am waiting to hear back from the food bank. I’d never even thought of school food. Do you have any new information?

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Hi Amy – I just checked again and the “previously served” ordinance is still on our books here in Houston with no carve-out for school food. I don’t know if the same ordinance is in effect in San Antonio but my guess is that it is. All of that said, I have heard of some schools quietly gathering up foods like whole fruits and sealed, wrapped items, wiping them off and leaving them in a central location for hungry kids to access throughout the day. This post from the Pew Trusts might also be useful to you. I hope this info helps!

      • says

        We have finished four days of data collection in two different elementary schools to assess whether Harvest of the Month lessons increase kid’s consumption of the featured menu item. As an aside, I started to look at the waste generated during lunch–everything from entire untouched sandwiches and salads, to pizza, corn dogs, chips, milk, and yes, untouched apples and oranges. Today at one school, after seeing that almost 90% of apples came back untouched (first graders have missing/loose teeth) I asked the kitchen for a knife and cutting board. During lunch period for grades 3-5 I walked around and asked kids if they wanted me to cut their apples/oranges. Most wanted their fruit cut. Many kids who had not chosen the apple also wanted to eat the apple quarter! Much less was discarded (though sadly, there was still waste.)
        Do you know how expensive the industrial apple slicers are, and if they are in use in any school district(s)? Agree that the issue of “browning” would be problematic for many kids. Also, my guess is that it’s too expensive to purchase pre-sliced apples (a la McD’s) not to mention that I’m not in favor of all the packaging. But what’s the point of pushing all this fruit on kids if it’s being thrown out? Would districts allow parent volunteers to walk around to cut fruit? Likely not. Also, I’m interested in finding out whether there is less waste with canned vs fresh fruit. Most canned fruit being served is low or no sugar added and it’s easier for younger children to eat. Curious to find out if anyone has any data, or even anecdotal information on these topics. Thanks!


  1. […] These regulations have incited mixed reactions from school administrations. Major concerns schools have are the rate of change, food waste from students, and the higher costs of healthier foods. Many students won’t eat the new, healthier meals, resulting in wasted expenses and food. The new USDA regulations, which require that fruit or vegetables be served daily during lunch oblige students to take the food, but that doesn’t mean they’ll eat it. Some resourceful schools found a solution to this waste, by donating the untouched produce to the hungry ( […]

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