UMaine Mitchell Center launches Maine School Cafeteria Food Waste Study

The University of Maine Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions launches its Maine School Cafeteria Food Waste Study pilot this week at four elementary schools in Orono, Buxton, Lisbon and Sebago.

According to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, approximately $5 million of edible food is wasted every school day in the U.S. In many Maine schools, about three-quarters of the waste in school dumpsters is food. At the same time, Maine leads New England in food insecurity with “on average 1 in 4 children at risk for hunger,” according to the Maine Department of Education website.

The University of Maine School Cafeteria Food Waste Study will address these major issues with a series of student-directed food waste interventions which have been co-developed over the last few months with their Maine public school Nutrition Director partners. 

“We are very excited about this opportunity to identify effective solutions for reducing food waste while improving student nutrition in Maine schools. By focusing specifically on elementary schools, we hope to teach these young students positive food waste behaviors that will continue through their middle and high school years. We also hope that these young influencers will bring those positive food waste behaviors into their homes,” says Susanne Lee, faculty fellow at the Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions who is leading the study. Lee also leads projects like the Maine Home Food Waste Challenge targeting home food waste reduction, a statewide food rescue pilot, a Maine community landfill diversion program and the annual Maine Food Waste Solutions Summit held in April.

The four pilot elementary schools in the two-month study include Asa C. Adams Elementary School, Buxton Center Elementary School, Lisbon Community School, and Sebago Elementary School. Beginning Monday, Mitchell Center student interns and faculty will host special Food Waste Education Assemblies at the four schools using “What is Food Waste” K–5 slideshow along with student games and activities to help teach food waste solutions that will be put into practice in the school cafeteria. In addition to continuing food waste education, key cafeteria interventions will include signage reminding students to “feed their bodies not the trash bin,” a “Share Basket” to enable students to return packaged items they choose not to eat, and a sorting station to help children separate compostable food from trash. 

“Our school feels very fortunate to be a part of the study,” says Morgan Therriault, food service director at Sebago Elementary. “Working together with the UMaine Mitchell Center will broaden our ability to teach students about the harmful economic, social and environmental impact of wasted food, a much-needed elementary school topic. I foresee a positive outcome for our Food Service Department, and an educational impact that will last a lifetime for our students.” 

Researchers are also tracking daily food waste quantities and conducting detailed pre- and post-study food waste audits in order to measure the impact of these food waste interventions. 

“Collecting daily food waste data is incredibly important for our team to assess whether our solutions to reduce food waste are actually working. In addition, the students are also very excited to see how they are doing, so we will use the data to create a fun and motivational feedback loop for them as well,” says Eddie Nachamie, the Mitchell Center student intern in charge of the School Food Waste Study.

The Maine School Cafeteria Food Waste Study is developed in collaboration with the Maine Department of Education and the Department of Health & Human Services as well as the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. The study is supported by a Sustainability Seed Grant from the Natural Resources Council of Maine. AgriCycle Energy will provide food waste recycling services to pilot schools.

Contact: Sam Schipani,