“Share Tables” Are Popping Up in Schools to Help Make Sure No Child Goes Hungry

Lately, I’ve been noticing something that first struck me as very odd. When my kids would get home from school and I would empty out their lunch boxes (because they continually forget to dump their garbage into the trash) I would come across items that I knew I hadn’t packed for them that morning.

“Oh, that’s from the share table!” they would tell me. This was how I discovered their school cafeteria has a communal table where kids can put food that they are not going to eat so another child can have it. As any mom can attest to, this is brilliant!

Kids can be notoriously picky when it comes to food. I have three boys, one of which would sustain himself exclusively on snack foods if I allowed it. It’s a constant battle and I hate to waste the food that he won’t eat. Food waste is a huge problem in our country (we currently waste about 40% of our food supply). So I can definitely get on board with ideas like “share tables” that help to cut down on some of the food that is thrown out daily in our schools.

school pic
Image source: Katy Anderson

Additionally, share tables can help in the battle against childhood hunger. It is estimated that nearly 13 million children face hunger every day — and yet there is plenty of food to go around. In a CNN article titled “Why Does America Have So Many Hungry Kids?” Bryan Stallings, co-founder of food pantry Jesus Was Homeless, credits the problem to “greed and government.”

“There’s too many government health restrictions that force restaurants (and schools!) to throw away food instead of donating it to the needy,” Stallings said. “It’s also greed: We’re not helping our neighbors.”

Studies have shown that children have a difficult time learning and retaining information when they are hungry. (Don’t we all!) So it isn’t surprising that children facing hunger are twice as likely to repeat a grade in elementary school and are more likely to miss school and receive poorer grades.

I often worry that my son is not eating enough at school, but now those fears have been diminished. With the share table in place, I know that if he doesn’t want to eat what I packed for him, he may pick up something off the table (even if it’s not the healthy snack I had hoped he’d devour). I also try to pack extra food and encourage my kids to place it, and anything else they won’t eat, on the share table so that another child will be nourished.

This program can also help families who don’t qualify for school lunch assistance programs but are still struggling. Of course, individual states have to take initiative to implement this program — but luckily, the idea is catching on. Texas politicians recently passed a bill called the Texas Student Fairness Act that allows schools to distribute unused, non-perishable food any way they see fit.

My home state of Utah has a similar law. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the federal lunch program, endorsed “share tables” as an “innovative strategy” that food service directors should consider in a June 2016 memo.

sharing table
Image source: Katy Anderson

I recently spoke with the school lunch manager, Melinda Shearer, at my kid’s elementary school, and she told me the program has been very beneficial. She said they have some rules for the kids — they can only take one item at a time, and can’t share anything from home that isn’t prepackaged (most food from the share table comes directly from the school kitchen).

They also adhere to the regulations about perishable foods. Fruit may only be shared if it has not been cut, and they take care to protect their students with food allergies. Adults and employees of the school are not allowed to partake of items on the share table.

According to Shearer, the program has been especially helpful for the older students — who tend to eat more —as well as those students who do not have adequate food in their lunches but don’t qualify for government school lunch programs.

While visiting the elementary school to see the share table for myself, lunch time was just about over. The share table was visible in a central location and the food that had been placed there was gone — a sure sign that the table is a hit! One child even placed a juice box on the table while I was there and it was quickly snatched up.

It just goes to show that sharing really is caring in this case and that the share table is an innovative way to cut down on food waste in schools, help those in need, and put a smile on the faces of our children.

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