Top 10 tips for... sustainable school food

Written by: Richard Dunne | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As part of our work to move our schools to net zero, what can we do with regards to school food to reduce waste and the carbon footprint of our canteens? Richard Dunne offers 10 ideas

Most of us are well versed in how the food we consume affects our health, but what about how it impacts the planet? Right now, agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. Very often, the way we eat and (mis)manage waste can support damaging, unsustainable processes around the globe – from using aeroplanes to import food that could be growing locally, to sending our recycling to the other side of the world.

Last year’s School report research (Pearson, 2022), two-thirds of the headteachers surveyed said they were taking steps to be more sustainable and eco-friendly by 2024. If we know that what we eat each day is critical in helping to reduce our climate impact, how can we as school leaders and teachers help to make a positive difference?

While we can’t solve some of these issues overnight, we can look to nature for answers. As an environmentalist and former headteacher, here are some key steps and considerations when it comes to creating sustainable food systems that benefit pupils, communities, budgets, and the planet.

1, Learn from nature

Before your school can make meaningful changes, you need to be clear on what a sustainable system is – and the best example is nature itself. Nature works in cycles that are endlessly self-sustaining and self-regulating. Within these cycles, there are times of growth and abundance, and there are times of decline and decay, of regeneration. During periods of restoration, resources are recycled as food or fuel so that the cycle can begin again. Nature has no waste. Everything has a value. Nothing is “thrown away”.

We too can work to create sustainable systems like this that are cyclical, diverse, and healthy – both in terms of practices and outcomes. We too can aim to create no waste. Having an agreed definition of sustainability – one that can help shape your school culture, how you operate and that everyone is bought into, is a crucial first step.

We often see sustainability as fixing problems when we might better see sustainability as an outcome of any system that is healthy and working in balance and harmony.

2, Observe & analyse: What can you see?

The second big step on this journey is to observe and analyse where you are with food and waste right now. For me, a key part of this is measurement. At my former school, pupils would measure food waste in the kitchen at the end of lunch-time each day, literally with buckets and scales. We would look in the bins and see what was being thrown away to build a picture of what pupils didn’t like or indeed whether they were too ready to simply throw the food away. Measuring food waste can be used to build your baseline and identify where to go next to reduce waste and save money.

At one school I visited, these measurements showed they were wasting 300kg of food a week. It is a massive amount going straight out of their budget and into the bin.

3, Make informed changes

Following your initial investigations, you can then set about making informed changes. For example, if you found food waste to be an issue, could too much choice be a contributing factor? Often canteens providing too much choice can lead to more waste. Consider changing the menu and simplifying the options – in discussion with pupils.

The funds you free up when waste goes down could help you buy more local, seasonal, and high-quality ingredients – perhaps from organic or regenerative farms – which will ultimately mean better choices for everyone’s health, as well as the planet.

4, Empower your staff and pupils

For initiatives like this to work, staff and pupils must take responsibility for the food that they eat and throw away. Help create that sense of responsibility by asking for their views on how to improve lunch-times, rather than imposing what you think is best.

This can be a great way to develop leadership among your pupils, too. Invite them to tell you what they want, and they can lead the process. Then building the cycle becomes their story, their message, their choice – an empowering process.

Your pupils could be responsible for different elements of the cycle too. In the primary school setting where I was headteacher:

  • Reception looked after their outdoor area.
  • Year 1 managed fruit waste and composting.
  • Year 2 were responsible for the bees.
  • Year 3 led on recycling.
  • Year 4 did the food waste.
  • Year 5 monitored water use.
  • Year 6 set targets for energy.

Scaling things up as the children get older builds their leadership, and soon you will start to see a cultural shift where everybody feels involved and everyone is motivated to take ownership for their actions.

5, Don’t be constricted by catering contracts

If you are engaged in a catering contract, you may feel constricted by what you can or cannot do regarding your food. I urge you to take the initiative since school leaders and governing bodies have much more power than you might think – after all, you are the customer, and the catering contractors want your business.

There will always be challenges around cost, but tell your caterer what you want, whether that is seasonal produce, ingredients sourced from the local area or at least within the UK, meat that comes from nature-friendly systems and so on.

In some cases, you may need to pay more for the changes, though this could be offset by the savings you make elsewhere, for example by reducing the amount of waste you produce.

In the school where I was headteacher, we investigated where our food was coming from and decided to use a different wholesaler for fruit and vegetables, and a butcher for our meat. We ate less but higher quality meat.

6, Grow your own

Do you have any space on your site to grow your own vegetables? Urban schools could speak to local allotment growers or community gardens to see if you could build partnerships there.

Starting on a small scale with a raised bed is a great first step. If you have more land such as a school field, can you convert a section on the edge for growing? There are many people in our communities who have a lot of knowledge and expertise about food growing. It is well worth asking around to see how they could support.

7, Get creative with costs

Your budget will almost certainly limit what you are able to do, but there are opportunities to get creative. Perhaps at the moment you run a salad bar throughout winter, which most likely means you are importing ingredients from thousands of miles away. Could you swap that for home-made soup, keeping things seasonal and local and lowering costs?

When I was a headteacher, another creative option was serving starters instead of desserts. Not only was this better for everyone’s diet, but it was also cheaper overall in terms of the cost of ingredients.

Again, ask the children what they think. Can they find better ways to set the menu that help solve the problem of unsustainable food systems?

8, Have waste-free days

As part of your measurement process, you may have seen pupils spending their parents’ money on food to then eat only a little and throw the rest away. To instil more of a “choose what you want, eat what you need” mentality, a radical way to bring this message home is to schedule waste-free days in the calendar.

Let the children know that, perhaps on a Friday, there will be no bins in the school. Build up to the day by discussing how they will need to be mindful of what they eat so that no food is thrown away.

Much like many schools have a “plastic-bag” free commitment, it would be great to see more and more schools commit to being “zero waste” too.

9, Close the cycle

Most local authorities have some kind of food waste collection service, enabling them to make energy and/or compost out of what is thrown away. That is a good starting point for your leftover food, and certainly a huge improvement on tying waste up in black plastic bags that go to landfill. It is good to make sure food waste is being collected and recycled.

Better yet, if you have the resources, think about compost initiatives on school grounds. This generally works best in smaller settings and needs to be very well managed, run with awareness of health and safety issues, as well as the risk of pests.

But it can be done and done well, creating a closed loop system – a system in which your school has the power to grow food, eat it, enjoy it, then replenish the soil with the composted matter from the food waste.

10, Don’t stop at food

Many of the principles and actions explored here apply to issues like energy, too, so don’t stop at food. So many pupils are passionate about making a difference to the planet and any steps you can take to support them on this mission – no matter how big or small – should be valued and celebrated.

Together, we can encourage new ways of learning that enable us to live sustainably and in harmony with nature.

  • Richard Dunne is founder and director of The Harmony Project, an education charity working with schools and educators in the UK and around the world to help them integrate principles of nature into the curriculum. He was previously headteacher of an Ofsted-graded outstanding school. Richard has collaborated with Pearson to provide free practical advice to help schools become more sustainable. Visit and follow @HarmonyOrgUK. Find more advice from him in Pearson’s Brighter Futures resources via

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