A systems examination of school food recovery in Northern Colorado

Melissa Pflugh Prescott, Alicia Grove, Marisa Bunning, Leslie Cunningham-Sabo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Food recovery is a key strategy to address food waste concerns. School nutrition programs have significant amounts of food waste; yet, little is known about the prevalence and feasibility of school food recovery. In this mixed methods study, we identify potential school food recovery options and relevant systems factors, such as policies, resources, barriers, and competing priorities. To achieve these objectives, we conducted pre-consumer food waste audits and measured all wasted food recovered or landfilled at 14 school kitchens across three Northern Colorado school districts. Additionally, we interviewed professionals engaged in food recovery (n = 8) and school nutrition and sustainability staff (n = 20). The results indicate that the majority of food waste is landfilled, but food donation through share tables and appropriation of milk to food banks prior to long school breaks were viewed as the most feasible food recovery options. Liability concerns, increased expenses over landfilling, inconsistent wasted food volumes, and policy confusion hindered food recovery. Interviewees also viewed priorities to promote food safety and quality of recovered food as barriers. Key facilitators of food recovery were the desire to facilitate a cultural change to normalize food recovery among students and volunteers or advocates to address the food recovery labor needs. Interview participants across the system agreed that the training process required to sort uneaten foods had secondary benefits of equipping the next generation with environmental stewardship habits. Study findings underscore the interconnected nature of food safety, economics, and food recovery, and also suggest that systems-level solutions are warranted.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number104529
JournalResources, Conservation and Recycling
StatePublished - Mar 2020


  • Food recovery
  • Food waste
  • Policy
  • School nutrition
  • Waste diversion

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Economics and Econometrics

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