School food waste is a problem; a new California law aims to fix the issue in general

Kayleigh Carstairs
A trash can filled to the top with food of all sorts after lunch at La Quinta High School.

Every day the sun rises, casting beautiful light upon the school’s outdoor cafeteria. The area is clean, washed down with a hose from the previous day. 

But once the bell rings, the trashing begins. 

By the end of the day, the cafeteria is crowded with unwanted, untouched food all over the tables and filling trash cans.

Food waste has been a problem around the world for a long time. But ever since the state of California allowed school hot lunches to be free and accessible to everyone last school year, many students have wasted more than they have eaten.

Virginia Andrade, the nutrition services site operator at La Quinta High School and also known as the head of the school cafeteria, is aware of the problem. 

“After lunch service, there is a lot of milk, fruit, or even an [entire] entree out there,” she said.

This is because students only wish to eat one or two items in the meal. However, students are required to take a reimbursable meal, which is a meal that consists of certain components that provide nutrition to the students. 

“We offer five right food items, which are the dairy product, the bread, the protein, the veggie, and the fruit. And within that, they have to pick up three components, which would be the protein, bread, and the fruit or vegetable,” Andrade said. “We also offer other things in the AutoChart windows if they do not want the complete meal.”

The AutoChart windows, also known as the snack bar, are in an area in the cafeteria in which students can purchase items that are not on the hot lunch menu. These normally consist of bags of chips, slushies, and other sugary foods.

Andrade is aware of the food waste and finds it disappointing. 

“It’s kind of sad for me. It’s sad if a student doesn’t want an item. They have a choice of not picking [the entree] up. If they [get an entree but] don’t want to eat it, they can take it home.”

Custodian Cheri Acuña is also troubled by food waste.

“It makes me sad to see the waste that happens at school sites [and] there are hungry kids, you know, around the world,” Acuña said. “I mean, it’s perfectly good food but we can’t save it and put it together for someone else. We got to throw it.” 

Both after breakfast and lunch at school, the custodians clean up the mess students leave behind and throw out all the abandoned food.

“I have over 30 trash cans here [in the cafeteria] and for the most part, it’s not even trash. It’s more food in the trash liners than there is trash,” Acuña said.

More than ten years ago, the school used to have a basket by the cafeteria as a solution to food waste back then. Food that was unwanted by a student would be placed in the basket, so another student who perhaps might want the food item can pick it up from the basket. However, this solution was quickly discarded. 

“This contributed to health issues,” Andrade said. “If [a student] leaves milk in there, we cannot have another student pick it up, per se, because it is not under temperature.”

A new California law that went into effect on January 1, 2022 will provide Californians an opportunity to contribute their food scraps and unwanted leftovers to compost collections.

Food that can be recycled include coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable scraps (even the moldy parts), egg shells, used/dirty paper food containers, juice pulp, paper towels and tissues; paper plates.

“I don’t like food waste,” says David Wood, the culinary arts instructor. “We try not to waste food. Sometimes we do need to make something that may not get used just because we’re learning how to do those techniques and things like that. But I don’t think that could be considered real food waste. It’s food use. Just the fact that it’s not eaten isn’t so much a problem, but yeah, we try not to waste food.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the students in the Culinary Arts Academy were not able to cook, so all stored food was donated to Martha’s Village in Indio, a food kitchen that accepts food donations. 

In a recent survey conducted by the Hawkview via Google Forms, 36 out of 40 students say they eat a hot lunch, and 20 of those 36 students confirm that they rarely finish the entire lunch. Ten students say they never finished a hot lunch and only seven of the 40 students finish their whole lunch. 24 students with a hot lunch always throw out their leftovers.

“Just pick up what you’re going to eat, you know, instead of wasting it. Put it in [your] backpacks and take it home for later,” Andrade said.

She wants everyone to know that everyone can help do their part.