By: Kate Delany

The concept of share tables is gaining traction across the country, appearing in elementary and secondary schools in Connecticut, Texas, California and many states in between. The idea is simple: schools set up a space in a common eating area (perhaps labelled a “No Thanks” table) where students can leave unwanted prepackaged, non-perishable food for others to claim. If there are no takers within the school community, the donated items are then delivered to a local shelter or food bank. This easy DIY concept allows schools to take concrete environmental action and perhaps save money in the process. With proper supervision to ensure food safety rules are observed, share tables can reduce, recover and recycle district food waste.

According to the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), forty percent of food in the U.S. goes uneaten and ends up in a landfill. This waste, approximately twenty pounds per person, squanders more than just vital nutrients. The energy, land and water used to produce this food are also irrevocably lost. As cited in Scientific American, “researchers at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) concluded in a 2009 study that each year a quarter of U.S. water consumption and over 300 million barrels of oil (four percent of U.S. oil consumption) go into producing and distributing food that ultimately ends up in landfills.” Additionally, huge amounts of chemicals (including pesticides, insecticides and herbicides) are applied to the soil to cultivate food that ultimately ends up in the trash.

This excessive waste is a problem for both human and planetary health. The EPA estimates that food waste accounts for about 20 percent of municipal landfill content. As food decomposes in landfills, it produces methane. Methane creates ground level ozone, which damages air quality, exacerbating asthma and other respiratory conditions, while potentially causing lung damage and lung tissue scarring. Methane is also a potent greenhouse gas. Though carbon dioxide is more frequently noted as a cause of global warming, scientists estimate that methane’s impact may be even more severe. In keeping food out of the landfill, schools may be taking steps to remediate climate change.

All this food waste also flies in the face of known U.S. food insecurity data. Rather than pitching consumable food, school communities offering a share table could help struggling families. According to USDA’s Economic Research Service, “12.3 percent (15.6 million) of U.S. households were food insecure at some time during 2016.” Offering extra unpeeled fruit or unopened packaged food at a school share table could potentially ease some of the pressure on these families in need, many of which contain young children.

The share table concept could also be a cost saving measure for school districts. As of July 2017, all school food authorities operating the National School Lunch and/or School Breakfast Program are required to have clear written guidelines in place to address instances in which students are not able to pay the cost of a meal at the time of meal service. While many districts offer cheese sandwiches or peanut butter and jelly to students without money at meal time, a share table would offer another resource to make sure all students have enough to eat. It would also alleviate the burden on districts to pay for meals that they may never get reimbursed for.

In addition to their environmental and health benefits, share tables offer a chance to build community. Any food items unclaimed by the school community could be offered to local food banks or shelters, giving even the youngest children the chance to partake in charitable work. Because all students are able to give or take and can do so casually with their peers, the stigma of accepting a donation is minimized. Students would be able to give and receive at their own discretion.

The USDA has created clear guidelines and best practices for school districts to observe as they establish share tables. Several State Departments of Environmental Protection have also offered voluntarily instructions for schools to observe. These guidelines focus on issues of safety and communication. Temperature sensitive items should be avoided unless refrigeration is available and can be routinely monitored. Expiration dates on all shared items should be observed. Signage establishing the rules of the share table is recommended. Share table signs can encourage recycling as well as gaining permission and input from caregivers. Additionally, some oversight of the table is needed. A supervisor should ensure that items on the share table are not open, punctured or in any way compromised. Students could assist with this job to gain more insight into food safety.

Share tables offer schools a novel way to tackle food waste management. If done in a safe and sanitary way, these tables could be a cost-effective, student centered way to address the complex issues of climate change and hunger.