How schools can lead the fight against food waste

school lunch room
CC BY 2.0 woodleywonderworks -- A busy school lunch room

Schools are the most logical place to start, as children are the nation's future cooks and grocery shoppers.

Every year in American schools, an estimated $1 billion worth of food is wasted. This is due in part to the national lunch program’s requirement that kids must take the items given to them, even if they don’t like them. If those items don’t get eaten, they go into the trash.

This ties into a much bigger problem – that 40 percent of food produced for U.S. consumption never gets eaten; and yet, there are 49 million Americans (roughly 15 percent of the population) who are food insecure, not knowing where their next meal will come from.

Jonathan Bloom, author of the award-winning book American Wasteland, believes that education about food waste should start in schools. Rather than pouring money into advertising campaigns designed to change the habits of adult home cooks, who tend to eat according to habit, Bloom argues that children, with their malleable tastes and open minds, are the best place to start.

Children will be the next generation of home cooks, which means that changing their perspective can make the biggest difference over the long run. Currently, by allowing them to throw away uneaten food, we’re inadvertently teaching them that food is trash – the opposite of what’s needed right now.

In an article for FoodTank, Bloom offers some good ideas for how to go about teaching food stewardship to kids in school.

Offer choices.

Rather than have predetermined meals designed for kids, allow them to pick what they feel like eating. The introduction of salad bars has resulted in much greater consumption of greens because kids like making their own salads. Bloom writes:

“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.”

Glamorize the healthy stuff.

Make a ‘healthy choices only’ line, where no junk food is displayed. When implemented, 35 percent more students have chosen the healthy line. Use creative nudges and appealing names, like “x-ray vision carrots” and “super-strength spinach.”

It has to be delicious.

It’s not fair to expect kids to eat food that’s not delicious. Of course they’ll reject overcooked green beans, pasty potatoes, and flavorless tomatoes. But present them with butter-and-garlic sautéed beans, lemon-roasted potatoes, and fresh tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and feta, and they’re more likely to chow down. We adults need to think about what we’d like to be eating, and try to recreate that for junior palates. The kids can handle it, believe me.

Adjust eating times.

Bloom’s son eats his first lunch at 9:55 a.m., which is absurdly early. Schools should move lunchtime closer to noon, so that kids are actually hungry and ready to eat. Another suggestion is to make recess first, so that the kids are tired and ravenous by the time they come in.

Give them some more time.

I often hear the complaint from my kids that lunchtime is too short and they don’t have time to finish everything. Providing an additional five minutes could go a long way toward ensuring food gets eaten.

Turn off the screens.

At my kids’ old school, the kindergarten class screened a Disney movie every day during lunch. While it was supposed to keep the kids quiet and focused on their eating, it had the obvious effect of distracting them completely and causing them to forget to eat.

Teach them about what happens next.

Separate unopened food packages for community donation, through a group such as Food Bus, or to be distributed within the school. Compost the rest; recycle the packaging. Talk to kids about the value of food and why it’s important to instill such habits early on. Much like anti-littering campaigns were an integral part of the curriculum in years gone by, so should food waste be integrated into it now.

How schools can lead the fight against food waste
Schools are the most logical place to start, as children are the nation's future cooks and grocery shoppers.

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