Addressing Food Waste & Food Insecurity in South Los Angeles Through Share Table

Across the country, the USDA’s National School Lunch Program serves lunch to 30 million students every school day. While the program helps address the issue of food insecurity to some degree, it poses another problem – food waste. On average, the lunch program wastes $5 million worth of edible food every day, or $1.2 billion per school year. Simultaneously, 13 million children, or 1 out of every 6 kids, experience hunger every day. To combat both issues of food waste and food insecurity, National Health Foundation’s (NHF) youth leaders in the Health Academy program, researched, piloted and launched share tables at their schools in South Los Angeles at Santee Education Complex and Thomas Jefferson High School.

What is a Share Table?

A share table is a specific location at a school, usually in the lunchroom, where students can drop off uneaten, unwanted, or extra food from their school lunch. Other students can then pick up the left-over food as additional healthy items to complement their lunch or to snack on later. Share tables divert good food from being thrown away and increases access to healthy food for students who might want or need more, at no extra cost.

Why Share Table?

Utilizing the Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) framework to engage students in implementing a new program to increase access to healthier foods, NHF recruited 24 students to address food insecurity in their schools. YPAR is an innovative approach to youth engagement based on social justice principles in which young people are trained to conduct research to improve their lives, their communities, and the organizations intended to serve them.

After conducting surveys with the student body, interviewing the school’s cafeteria manager, and conducting a food waste audit, the students identified two main issues at their school: food waste and food insecurity; and with some additional research, the youth leaders decided a share table would be the best and most efficient way to address both health issues.

Launching Share Table in South Los Angeles

In an initial test pilot, youth leaders recorded how much food was dropped off or picked up during the lunch period. By the end of the week, an average of 80 food and beverage items were dropped off at the table, and on four of the five weekdays, all food items were picked up by other students. It was a success!

Determined to make the share tables permanent, the students finalized logistics and launched a marketing campaign to promote the first-ever Share Tables in their schools. A month after the share tables formally launched, NHF’s youth leaders conducted a follow-up survey to see if the share tables were having their intended impact–reducing food waste, alleviating hunger and promoting healthy eating habits.

Share Table Success

Youth leaders found that a third of the students surveyed actually used the share tables and 55% felt that it was making a difference at the school.

To ensure the sustainability of the student-run program, students identified parent volunteers from the school’s parent centers that were interested in reducing food waste and hunger to manage the share tables. The tables are now monitored by a small group of parents that will continue to bring in new parents as their children move on past high school.

Inspiring Communities Beyond South Los Angeles

The success of Health Academy’s share tables inspired a movement. Before Health Academy’s project, share tables were often considered burdensome, messy, student projects. Smaller pilot tests were initiated but never amounted to much, especially in LAUSD. Having tracked the project outcomes, LACDPH realized that share tables could actually make an impact on food insecurity and food waste.

LACDPH requested that NHF and Health Academy document their work from beginning to end, making sure to include each step of the share table process. The result of the documentation was a LACDPH “CalFresh Healthy Living Share Table Implementation Guide” that is now available state-wide to all California SNAP-Ed funded partners–over 30 community organizations and schools. This implementation guide guarantees share tables are effective policy, system, or environmental change projects that have a positive impact of the health of food insecure individuals and communities.

To view the full guide, check out the booklet below.