Food waste is abundant in schools across the United States. According to research conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, US$1.2 billion worth of school lunch is wasted every year. But thanks to the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Food Waste Warriors initiative, classrooms have new tools to cut waste and improve healthy food access for students.
Nationally, WWF estimates schools could be throwing away up to 481,000 metric tons of food per year. That is about equal to the amount of food consumed by the 510,000 residents of Atlanta, Georgia in a single year.
The WWF’s Food Waste Warriors report provides the results of a food waste analysis conducted in 46 schools across nine U.S. cities in spring 2019. WWF provided classes in the participating schools with lesson plans and other resources on how to reduce food waste and the importance of food waste reduction. The lessons include training students on how to conduct food waste audits in the cafeteria.
“The cafeteria is an incredibly important classroom,” Pete Pearson, Senior Director of Food Waste and Loss at the WWF tells Food Tank. He believes the best way to teach students about food waste and its impact is to have them conduct waste audits in their cafeterias once a month.
In a food waste audit, students are stationed where the trash cans would typically be and help sort waste into separate buckets. Fruit, vegetables, hot food, milk, and other types of food are weighed and recorded. Meanwhile, students interview their peers about why they did not eat all of their food. “If we were to single something out, it’s having that education and awareness start with the auditing process itself — getting people involved in the cafeteria,” says Pearson.
The Food Waste Warriors report found that “on average, the 46 schools produced approximately 17.8 kilograms (39.2 pounds) of food waste per student per year.” The report also estimates US$1.7 billion, the emission of 1.9 million metric tons of greenhouse gas, and the use of 79.1 billion liters of water in annual sunk costs.
“In terms of volume… fruits and vegetables can be a high percentage of the waste stream,” says Pearson. “The worry is that somebody picks that up [the statistic] and says… ‘let’s just not serve it if the kids don’t want it,’ and that’s the wrong way to think about it.” Some food waste is inevitable, says Pearson. He suggests that, through regular waste audits, schools should focus on understanding why kids are throwing things away and work on increasing consumption.
The Food Waste Warriors report also offers several policy suggestions for how to increase healthy consumption and mitigate waste. The suggestions include reforming nutrition requirements and establishing grants to fund waste reduction efforts. Equal emphasis is placed on steps school districts can take themselves. Deepening students’ education and connection to their food, wildlife, and the environment should be part of “an easy trifecta between classroom kitchens, cafeterias, and school gardens,” according to the WWF.
WWF suggests that schools implement Share Tables — a space in the cafeteria where students can deposit unopened food and drinks such as whole fruit, individually wrapped vegetables, and milk. Students can also use the Share Table to take more of the foods they want to enjoy. “The Share Table is an essential element of waste-reduction,” according to a school in Columbus, Ohio that participated in the Food Waste Warriors program.
Share Tables can also be a platform for another of the report’s recommendations: donating surplus, unopened food and drinks to local nonprofit agencies. Observing waste patterns and establishing redistribution channels “puts a higher value on edible food… and it gets the entire supply chain thinking about how we make more food available and at what price point,” Pearson tells Food Tank.
Pearson hopes that the Food Waste Warriors program will help “find those things that get kids thinking about [food and food waste] differently… we need to think about both the planet and people’s health any time we’re talking about food.”
Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture