Food loss and food waste has become a worldwide concern in recent years due to its negative impacts on resource use, the environment, and social development [1
]. Although food loss and food waste occurs throughout the whole food supply chain, from farm to table, food waste at the consumer stage attracts particular attention because the relatively large amount of consumer food waste means that all resources input at production, processing, storage, and distribution stages was used in vain, and a significant amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions occurring at these stages and at waste management is added [5
]. Besides, considering the rapid growth of the global population and the declining of the per capita availability of resources and energy for food production, food waste also intensifies the global food shortage and malnourishment [6
]. Previous studies on consumer food waste mostly take consumption as an aggregated sector [1
] and do not have a focus on different segments within consumption. In recent years in China, there has been increasing public awareness of food waste and campaigns against food waste (e.g., the “clean your plate” initiative); consequently, a few researchers have also made some rough estimation of the scale of food waste in China [7
]. However, none of them have reported results for schools.
The school canteen is one important segment of food consumption outside the home. School-aged children are experiencing rapid body growth and maturation, therefore a nutritious and balanced diet benefits their health, well-being, and academic achievement in the long term [10
]. In recent years, a few studies have focused on school food waste using case studies in different countries. For example, according to an assessment of the American National School Lunch Program (NSLP) during 1991–1992, approximately 12% of calories from food served to students were lost as plate waste, causing a cost of over 600 million US dollars [10
]. For early elementary students in the U.S., nearly 45.3% of foods and beverages were wasted in a full school week [13
]. In the U.K., food waste was the dominant composition of school waste, accounting for one-third to a half by different grades of students [14
]. A study by Falasconi et al. [15
] found that more than 15% of school food in Italy was lost. Silvennoinen et al. [16
] quantified food waste in different food service sectors in Finland, and found that the ratio of total school food waste (including kitchen waste) accounted for nearly 17%. Ishdorj et al. [17
] found that vegetable plate waste in elementary schools increased from 52% to 58% after the implementation of a new school meal standard in the USA. Ferreira et al. [18
] analyzed food waste in a Portuguese university setting, and proposed the reduction of food waste as a significant solution to improve food service sustainability. Liz Martins et al. [19
] validated the visual estimation method for plate waste of main dishes at primary school canteens by comparing it with direct weighing. However, almost all existing studies on school food waste to date were carried out in industrialized countries. More case studies on the school plate waste phenomenon in developing countries—especially large emerging countries (e.g., China, as the world most populous country)—are therefore very important and badly needed.
The food waste generated in schools is influenced by multiple factors, such as the quality and efficiency of catering service, the dietary habits of students, and the national diet culture. Wansink et al. [20
] stated that children eating with larger bowls wasted significantly more than those with smaller ones. Getlinger et al. [21
] proposed that scheduling recess before eating lunch would help to significantly reduce food waste. The research of Casimir [22
] suggested that the large amount of food waste generated in Sweden was strongly related to children’s ignorance of the impact of food waste on the environment and ethical issues associated with it. The study of Marlette et al. [23
] indicated that changing preparation methods and limiting the availability of competitive food items would help to reduce plate waste in school lunch programs. Falasconi et al. [15
] argued that lack of attention to dietary habits was the most important factor behind school food waste. Abe and Akamatsu [24
] concluded that low self-efficacy for completely finishing meals was the main reason for Japanese students’ food waste behavior. Other factors, such as food logistics, food menu, food pairing, and distance to dining hall were also analyzed in other studies [25
]. In short, there are some common factors behind school food waste, but they may also differ in different case studies. A better understanding of these driving factors in a local context would help to explore specific solutions to address school plate waste issues.
In 1993, China launched the National School Lunch Program, aiming to strengthen the health and physique of Chinese adolescents. In Beijing, nearly one third of primary and middle schools joined this program [30
]. However, after over twenty years’ practice, it was gradually realized that solely implementing these nutrition lunch programs without taking food waste into consideration seemed to be inefficient and costly, and food waste issues among school-aged children started to cause wide attention from the public. First, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey by the Chinese government, the health condition of Chinese children has continued to decline in the past two decades, with the ratio of over-weight and obesity in children up to 5.05% and 9.41%, respectively. Some chronic diseases, like diabetes mellitus, dyslipidemia, and metabolic syndrome have also been found among school-aged children. Zhai et al. [30
] and Duan et al. [32
] made an assessment of school children’s diet quality in Beijing, and found nearly 29%–30% of food provided was not eaten by students, which significantly lowered the efficiency of the National School Lunch Program. Second, such school plate waste led to a great concern on the loss of the Chinese traditional value of “saving food” among school-aged children. Among other side-effects, this emerged as an important challenge faced by Chinese schools and educators with the improvement of the living standard and the implementation of the One Child policy.
Although plate waste is considered to be serious in Chinese schools, how much food is actually wasted and the main causes remain unclear. In this paper, we report a pilot study on the patterns and causes of plate waste in school lunch programs in Beijing, China. To our best knowledge, this is the first study of its kind in China, and provides a first sign of the normally-ignored amount of plate waste in China’s lunch program. We believe that the results of this study provide a good basis for further analysis in this field, and can help to inform policy-making in relevant nutrition and education programs in schools in China (supported by the fact that a report of our preliminary survey results was actually read and commented by China’s top leadership, which led to a city-wide crackdown on plate waste in all schools in Beijing).