Food waste is one of the more pressing problems of our time. Globally, about a third of all food produced gets lost or wasted – food worth about $11 million. In the United States alone between 30 and 40 per cent of the food supply is wasted – the equivalent of more than 20 pounds (or nine kilos) of food per person per month.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 45 per cent of fruit and vegetables produced and not eaten annually is binned, despite its taste and nutritional value. And in the US organic waste is the second-highest component of landfills – in turn the largest source of methane emissions.

Virgin Unite, sustainability, sustainia, cafeteria culture

Food waste occurs throughout the journey from farm to fork: before harvesting, during distribution, and at home – usually because we’ve bought more than we can eat. But food waste is also a global problem which can be solved locally. Countless solutions abound, from apps that allow us to buy restaurant food that would otherwise be binned, to social supermarkets selling surplus food, to food-sharing initiatives where fruit and vegetables destined for landfill gets distributed to marginalised communities. Others lead by example: Amass, a leading Copenhagen restaurant, has slashed its annual food waste and sends less than a quarter of it to landfill. The rest is recycled. That’s remarkable, when you consider that the average restaurant produces over 68,000 kilos of waste each year, of which 84 per cent goes to landfill.

However, as admirable as they are, these are all Band-Aid solutions. We need to prevent food waste at source, rather than just deal with it. At an international summit on food in Copenhagen last month, several delegates argued that education – and children’s education in particular – could prove crucial in this respect. In a report six years ago, the United Nations’ educational arm, UNESCO, declared that “education is a key to shaping values and behaviour to help realise sustainable development through acquiring knowledge and skills”.


Which is why the likes of Cafeteria Culture, in New York City, are potentially so interesting. It helps to create zero-waste school cafeterias and climate-smart communities through education, arts, and media. Specifically, it provides programmes to over 6,000 students in New York schools, primarily in low-income communities. These programmes teach students about environmental justice, marine litter, and climate change.

Every day, “Cafeteria Rangers” appointed from the student body oversee the post-lunch recycling and sorting of food scraps and packaging. While learning about recycling and sorting, the students also practise communication and leadership skills, and design arts and media based advocacy campaigns, such as giant puppets and video shorts.

The purpose? To engage fellow students and teach them about zero waste, and how to achieve it. Cafeteria Culture claims that after just a few days of operation in any given school, its Cafeteria Ranger programme increases the amount of waste diverted from the bins by up to 80 per cent. And, according to the New York Citizens Budget Commission, the proper sorting of waste reduces the cost of waste management.

Virgin Unite, sustainability, sustainia, cafeteria culture

Above all, however, its programme aims to create a culture of sustainability and zero waste throughout the school. That is, by giving children knowledge and skills about climate change and the harmful effects of waste production, Cafeteria Culture enables them to make a positive environmental impact now and in the future.

Indeed, the hope is not only that children take this culture of sustainability and zero waste home and share it with their family, but that they are inspired for life – and what starts as a zero-waste school becomes a climate-smart community. If it works, then, future generations may talk less about dealing with food waste than about preventing it from occurring in the first place.

  • This innovation is part of Sustainia100; a study of 100 leading sustainability solutions from around the world. The study is conducted annually by Scandinavian think-tank Sustainia that works to secure deployment of sustainable solutions in communities around the world. This year’s Sustainia100 study is freely available at – Discover more solutions at @sustainia and #100solutions

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