Share Table in La Crosse Schools Pilots Ways to Reduce Waste & Cost

Share Tables help reduce waste, reduce food costs and increase the opportunity for hungry students to eat more. Food Service Staff at Hintgen, Harry Spence, Hamilton and Summit Environmental Schools in La Crosse county quickly embraced the benefits of Share Tables in their cafeterias. Engaging with FoodWIse as they piloted an Illinois Extension-developed toolkit and manual, they used food safety precautions as students left food items they would otherwise throw away for other students to enjoy.  


The 2019 School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study found that students discarded 41% of milk and 31% of vegetables from their school lunches. Food is thrown into trash cans instead of consumed by students, which leads to higher school food service costs, and increased landfill waste. Share Table programs support reducing waste when students can leave their unwanted food items for someone else to pick up and enjoy, or for food service to collect and re-service in another school meal, send home in a backpack program, or donate. 

Illinois Extension received funding from a Critical Agricultural Research and Extension (CARE) grant to pilot their Share Table toolkit with Iowa and Wisconsin SNAP-Ed funded nutrition programs. The resource toolkit included policies and procedures for food safety training to make sure shared food was safe to consume, and newsletters to parents about the program. The grant offered $800 to each participating school to purchase a meal cart, baskets and signage. 

FoodWIse Nutrition Coordinator for La Crosse county Karie Johnson knew some area schools had cafeteria Share Tables prior to 2020. Given the opportunity to participate in the pilot with Illinois Extension, she connected with those schools and two others where the SNAP-Ed-funded FoodWIse has long-standing relationships in the classrooms, to see if she could support reintroducing the Share Table model. Hintgen, Harry Spence, Hamilton Elementary and Summit Environmental School food service staff agreed to pilot the shelves in their cafeterias. 


Illinois Extension developed training for individuals like Karie to support the food service staff of schools in their districts in implementing Share Tables. The year-long pilot began in summer 2022. Karie connected with schools to help them decide and implement the protocol that would work best for their school. The Health Department approved all plans to ensure food safety. After training, Karie’s role throughout the pilot included monthly visits to gather data for tracking costs such as staffing and supplies, as well as food purchases compared to what items were shared, as an evaluation measure. She also was a steady resource for food service staff. There can be nuances to how foods are safely shared – a whole wrapped apple can stay on a shelf, while a sliced apple needs to be on ice – and Karie’s support helped staff confidently learn those details. 

Schools can structure the redistribution of shared items for how works best with staff time and resources to provide food safety precautions. As Karie mentioned, “kids are kids – sometimes there might be one or two little bite marks in an apple that a student put on the shelf, and staff kept an eye out for those kinds of items to redirect kids.” Not only is staff training important, but supporting students to understand what they can put on the shelves to safely share is also essential.

 Outcomes & Continued Opportunities 

Karie noted that schools immediately saw the benefits of Share Table outweighing the costs of staff tending to the carts and what items students left. “Lunch staff really care about kids and feeding them, and when they felt the positivity of the project, they were all onboard.” 

As the pilot wraps up and data is analyzed, Karie noted anecdotal evidence that the program has significant impact in schools. Hungry students are able to increase their nutrition intake without additional lunch-time costs when they can grab an extra milk or carrots that otherwise might head to the landfill. 

With these successes, Karie plans to approach 2 more SNAP-eligible schools in the district to begin their own pilot of the Share Table. With one more year to show the efforts have meaningful impacts in cost-savings for schools, as well as students and their families, alongside reducing waste and increasing access to nutritious foods, Karie hopes the Share Table protocol is something the La Crosse food service director could bring to all district cafeterias. 

Support Extension