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How schools can teach kids to value food

It’s well past time we reverse the status quo on food waste. If children really are our future, it’s going to be a wasteful one if we don’t change our ways.

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    Vegetables pulled from waste bins of an organic supermarket are shown in Berlin in January 2013.
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This is a guest article written by Food Tank Advisory Board Member Jonathan Bloom. Bloom is the author of "American Wasteland" and creator of the blog “Wasted Food.” Find him on Twitter at @wastedfood

There’s much ado about food waste these days. The Obama Administration set an aggressive food waste reduction goal by 2030, five states and a few cities have banned it from landfills, Congress held hearings on the matter, the Ad Council created a suite of “Save the Food” public service ads, and the National Science Foundation just donated US$1 million to tackle the issue.

Yet this activism ignores two key players in the long-term fight against food waste: children and their schools. And if it doesn’t reach kids, today’s “much ado” about food waste might lead to nothing—nothing lasting, at least.

It’s easy to see why school food waste goes unnoticed—America squanders just US$1.2 billion via school lunch annually, a tiny slice of the estimated US$218 billion in food wasted in America each year.

As with food lost on farms, school waste has not been comprehensively studied. Instead, government agencies and food waste campaigners have focused on the largest quantifiable targets: waste at factories, restaurants, supermarkets, and, mostly, households. The economic stakes for figuring out school food waste are more indirect, as school lunch funders—the USDA—don’t ever see the disparate waste.  

Additionally, placing the word “school” before food waste converts a popular topic to kryptonite. That’s because school food waste is easily politicized in the wake of Michelle Obama’s Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act. Studies showing increased waste equate to a critique of the policy and its healthier, potentially less popular foods (and possibly the Obama administration itself). And the opposite represents a defense of both. Still, there was plenty of food wasted in schools before 2009, and the same is true today.    

Today and tomorrow are what we can change. Every day, we’re teaching kids that food is trash. We ensure that they throw it away by providing subpar grub in a rushed lunch period at times of the day when they won’t be hungry. Lunch at my son’s school starts at 9:55am! And the excess almost always fills up landfills rather than creating healthy soil, as fewer than one percent of schools have composting programs.

Meanwhile, tackling food waste in schools tends to prompt a wholesale examination—and usually an improvement—of the food served there. When kids are taught to eat more fruits and vegetables, that leads to healthier eating and less food discarded. Of course, that’s all dependent on the food being of a certain caliber. Often, it’s quite the opposite.

Why is there so much school food waste?

Much of the food served in American schools is mediocre at best. Too many school lunches feature poor-quality produce that’s frequently tasteless and/or the wrong size. Meat products often feel more like outtakes from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle than something we’d want to eat. And then there are the ubiquitous milk cartons, which pile up, often unopened, in the trash.

Don’t believe me? Drop in for a lunch at your neighborhood elementary school. As most school systems have prioritized convenience and cost, they’ve outsourced food prep to for-profit food service providers whose first priority is financial, not nutritional. Meanwhile, food spending is minimal. The USDA’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which funds meals for more than 30 million kids, only reimburses about US$3 per meal. Just a portion of that funding goes toward food, as it also must defray overhead costs of labor and energy.

Why School Food Waste Stinks

Our failure to focus on school food waste ignores the potential for change in young people. It’s not easy to measure the impact or value of increased awareness amongst young people. That doesn’t mean it’s not effective or that we shouldn’t try. To draw a parallel, how much of America’s gains in recycling or anti-smoking initiatives came through teaching kids to do it in school?

Viewed another way, adults are dinosaurs who rarely change and approach food mostly by habit. Kids, by contrast, are malleable. That’s why employing both words and deeds—awareness and action—on food waste will yield key results over time. When campaigns attempt to reach a decent number of current home food purchasers, it’s a missed opportunity to have a larger impact on the more impressionable shoppers of tomorrow.     

How Schools Could Waste Less

Schools can teach kids to waste less food through a few simple changes. First, creating longer lunch periods. For students buying lunch, there’s often not enough time to actually finish what’s on their tray after queuing to get their meal and finding a seat. And—this isn’t rocket science—more time to eat means more time to consume the intended nutrition. While it will provide some scheduling challenges, where there’s a will, there’s a way. And an extra five minutes could mean the difference between students being hungry or well-fed.

Changing the lunchroom layout can also play a role in minimizing waste. Cornell’s Smarter Lunchroom Movement found that simply shifting the placement of items in the cafeteria and displaying creative names for vegetables—like “X-ray Vision Carrots” and “Super Strength Spinach”—led to dramatically more produce eaten. They also found that a “healthy choices only” convenience line led to 35-percent more students choosing healthier items. And minor changes can have major impact. One study found that slicing apples led to more than 60-percent higher consumption than serving them whole.

Meanwhile, as student agency increases, so does consumption. For example, salad bars have worked wonders for veggie eating—and that’s no surprise, when compared to items like steam-table green beans. The USDA allows schools to provide choice—referred to as “Offer versus Serve”—wherein students can pick three of five items offered (as long as one item taken is a fruit or vegetable). But at present, only about half of American schools allow that option.

Even with those changes, some unwanted food will always end up on students’ trays. And schools can make sure more of it gets eaten by simply designating a “share table” for unwanted food items that other students can then take. Washington Elementary in Fayetteville, Arkansas, is one of many schools with a share table, as described in a USDA webinar by Melissa Terry, a food policy researcher at the University of Arkansas. The USDA has voiced its support for this strategy in general, as long as it’s not prohibited by local health codes.

Of course, not all students buy school lunch. But one policy that affects all younger students is the order of lunch and recess. A recent study found that moving recess before lunch yielded roughly 50-percent more fruit and vegetable consumption. Kids are able to work up an appetite on the playground and don’t rush through lunch to get outside. As with lunch period length, scheduling these changes presents a logistical challenge, but a manageable one if schools view increased consumption as a bridge to better nutrition and, hence, learning.

Despite these waste-reducing strategies, there will still be uneaten food. Fortunately, donation of packaged foods and whole fruits from schools is a burgeoning trend. Since 2012, the USDA has encouraged food directors to redistribute unopened milk, bags of carrots, whole fruit, and other items to community members—often within the school—in need. Nonprofits like Food Bus and Food Rescue have developed models for doing just that.

For the inevitable excess that can’t be donated, more schools should compost. In addition to avoiding greenhouse gas emissions, composting could save school districts money on their trash bill. Composting can happen on- or off-site. And isolating food scraps is easy; I’ve seen kindergarteners master the art of separating food waste, recyclables, and trash—usually faster than the teachers! And, as seen in the Chittenden, Vermont, schools, setting up a composting program is both doable and educational, as it can teach resource conservation, chemistry, civics, and more.

Schools are places of learning, so why not treat the cafeteria as another classroom? Helping kids avoid wasting food teaches not only nutrition, but ethics, environmentalism, economics, and personal responsibility. It’s well past time we reverse the status quo on food waste. If children really are our future, it’s going to be a wasteful one if we don’t change our ways.

This story originally appeared on Food Tank.

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