Cafeteria "share tables" reduce food waste and help feed hungry kids and the larger community. It's a simple idea that's easy to get behind--especially this time of year.

Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Cafeteria Share Tables
Credit: Africa Studio/Getty

If you've ever visited your child's school cafeteria at breakfast or lunch time, you probably know two things: It's really loud in there. And an awful lot of kids throw away an awful lot of food.

There's a reason for the waste: One of the rules of the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program is that students must take a certain amount of items from the line, whether they want them or not. So plenty of food ends up going in the trash. Yet on the flip side, other students are extra hungry and need more food. It's also a sad reality that some kids may not be getting enough to eat at home and depend on school food for most of their nourishment.

A simple but brilliant solution: The "share table". That's a spot in the cafeteria where students can place unopened, unwanted food and beverages from their school lunch (not their lunchbox) instead of trashing them. Then students who want an extra helping or wish to trade one item for another can get it there at no cost. It's a place where the kids swap food, so there's not a stigma about who's getting what. Any food that's left on the share table can be served at the school's after-school program if they have one or donated to a local food bank or homeless shelter. Or it can be sent home with students whose families are struggling with food insecurity. (RELATED: The American Hunger Crisis)

Indiana was one of the first states to develop share table guidelines for school cafeterias, and there are now 400 schools in the state that either have share tables or donate unwanted items to food pantries, according to Food Rescue, a group that establishes school programs to help reduce waste. Some schools started share tables after the USDA released a memo last year calling the table an "innovative" strategy to encourage kids to eat healthy food and to reduce food waste, many other states (including Vermont, Alaska, Wisconsin, and Iowa) released school share table guidelines of their own.

Considering that about half of the country's public school children live in poverty and that 30-40 percent of the US food supply is wasted, it seems like a no-brainer that share tables should be in every school! If your child's cafeteria doesn't have one, talk to the principal and cafeteria manager about whether it's possible to start it. Keep in mind that there may be state and local regulations surrounding food safety that the school needs to follow for share tables—and keeping cold and hot foods at safe temperatures is obviously important. Here are some sweet photos of share tables across the country for ideas and inspiration.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.