Lunch Out of Landfills Teaches Students the Importance of Waste Sorting

by Marissa Sheldon, MPH
Lunch Out of Landfills

Part of the Food Policy Snapshot Series

Policy name: Lunch Out of Landfills

Overview: Schools in Frederick County, Maryland, have implemented Lunch Out of Landfills, a waste-sorting program to teach students about recycling, composting, and reducing food waste.

Location: Frederick County, Maryland

Food policy category: Food waste, food security, climate change

Program goals: To remove food waste from landfills in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow climate change.  

How it works: When students finish their lunch at school, they sort their waste into five stations set up in the cafeteria:

  • Untouched, packaged food to be donated,
  • Liquids,
  • Organic matter to be composted,
  • Recyclables,
  • Trash. 

Every day, the waste is weighed to track progress over time. Key Compost takes the organic matter to be composted, liquids are poured down the drain, and untouched packaged food items are donated to the Greater Urbana Area Food Bank. Recyclables are collected by the Frederick County Division of Solid Waste Management

Funding was originally provided by local Rotary Clubs and Frederick County Public Schools. Joe Richardson, the founder of Lunch Out of Landfills, works with student groups in Frederick and Montgomery Counties to continue implementing the program in schools and to lobby for additional funding from the state legislature and school boards. 

Progress to date: In 2018, Urbana High School first piloted the Lunch Out of Landfills program. The program expanded to Urbana Sugarloaf Elementary School in January of 2019, and in the fall of 2019, it was launched in 14 schools across Frederick County. When schools shut down in March 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lunch Out of Landfills also came to a halt. The program restarted in the fall of 2021 at Green Valley Elementary School, Oakdale High School, and Urbana High School, with Middletown Elementary School joining in December. 

The program is currently running in 13 schools across Frederick and Montgomery Counties. 

Why it is important: As much as 40 percent of all food produced in the United States is wasted. The amount of food that is currently wasted worldwide would be enough to feed all food-insecure individuals in the world. 

Instead, food comprises 22 percent of landfill waste material, and when food breaks down in a landfill, it produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. The process of producing, transporting, and packaging food that is eventually wasted also produces unnecessary greenhouse gases.

Composting food waste benefits the environment by reducing methane emissions and enhancing the soil quality to produce more agricultural crops.

Program/Policy initiated: The program was piloted in 2018 at Urbana High School.

Point of contact: 
Joe Richardson, Founder, Lunch Out of Landfills
Phone: (391) 674-7266

Similar practices: California’s new organic waste law (SB 1383) requires schools to “prevent, reduce the generation of, and recycle organic waste.” Starting in 2024, California schools will also be required to recover edible food.  

The Sustainable Jersey Food Waste Pilot Program is being implemented by three New Jersey schools for the 2021-2022 school year. 

Evaluation: From January to June of 2019, Urbana Sugarloaf Elementary School diverted enough liquids, organics, and recyclables to reduce 19,002 pounds of total waste down to just 2,994 pounds of landfill trash. 

Middletown Elementary School had not been recycling at all prior to implementing Lunch Out of Landfills in December 2021, and they have reduced their trash from 10 bags per day to three. To date, in a 4-month period, Middletown Elementary has diverted an average of 83 percent of their trash from landfill to compost, recycling, disposable liquids, and food recovery (donations). On average, they dispose of 18.5 pounds of trash per day, 7.4 pounds of recycled goods, 51.3 pounds of compost, and 21.4 pounds of liquids. They donate an average of 5.4 pounds of recovered food items per day.

Since December, participating schools have recovered 2,998 juice and milk cartons, 1,800 fruits and vegetables, and over 1,000 pre-packaged items that have been donated to the local food bank. 

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