New Year’s Resolution: Reduce Food Waste

A version of the following story, written by FoodCorps Arkansas Service Member Cecilia Hernandez, first appeared on the FoodCorps Arkansas blog, http://arkansasfoodcorps.blogspot.com.

Food Waste is B-a-n-a-n-a-s

After conducting a school-wide food waste audit at Bayyari Elementary School in Springdale, Ark., I would say that we are well on our way to producing some of the healthiest school trash cans around.

The idea for a food waste audit came to me on my first day of service as I was helping out in the school cafeteria. I was pleasantly surprised as I stood next to the cafeteria’s salad bar watching student after student serve themselves an “all you can eat” helping of fresh fruits and vegetables. I did not know it then, but a few minutes later those immaculate pieces of fruits and veggies would be in the trash. By the end of the lunch period I was shocked at all the produce that was thrown away.

Discarded bananas at Bayyari Elementary. Photo courtesy Cecilia Hernandez.
Discarded bananas at Bayyari Elementary. Photo courtesy Cecilia Hernandez.

Surely this had to have been a bad day, I thought to myself. The next day I checked in again only to find that hundreds of students were throwing away whole, unpeeled bananas! After talking to some of the cafeteria staff and teacher monitors, I found out that students had to take the bananas to fulfill their federal fruit requirement for the day. I was not the only one who felt unsettled by the cafeteria food waste. Coincidently, I had just met Rob Moore, an Environmental Educator from Boston Mountain Solid Waste District, who had worked with Bayyari’s Gifted and Talented students the year prior. We discussed the food waste issue and ultimately started to plan a food waste audit.

Rob and I wanted this audit to be a learning experience about food waste, so we decided to incorporate the food data that we collected into a math lesson. Eight days before the actual audit, we met with the students to explain the food waste issue and talk about their role. Two days after that we performed a visual audit of both breakfast and lunch programs to get a better sense of how we needed to structure our food collection during the audit.

Finally, our food audit day had arrived and the kids were ready to take on the challenge—fully equipped with plastic gloves, heavy-duty trash bags, and luggage scales.

After the students collected the food, they sorted and determined the pounds of food waste from breakfast that morning. They separated the waste into three piles: Trash, Food, and Milk. Immediately following our morning collection, the students went off to class while Rob and I set up the bins and trash bags for the food waste collection at lunch. At the end of the day, I created a display of some of the food that was still “untouched” for some students and staff to see. When I rolled in the cart with the display of food, many of the students became excited and thought I had brought them snacks to eat.

A small sample of the food collected during the waste audit. Photo courtesy Cecilia Hernandez.
A small sample of the food collected during the waste audit. Photo courtesy Cecilia Hernandez.

Some students even thought we were going to do a cooking lesson. When I finally told them that the food was recovered from the cafeteria trash bins, they were upset. The students were even more confused when they realized that due to health code regulations, we could not give the food away. These realizations led to a rich discussion with my 5th grade class about food waste, composting, landfills, poverty, food insecurity, and gleaning. In the end, the kids worked hard to collect the “waste.” Together we learned some valuable lessons, but the results were more bitter than sweet.

Bayyari Elementary’s Food Waste by the Numbers

In our one day of food waste collection at the school, we gathered the following data (a majority of which was calculated in a 5th grade math lesson):

Breakfast:
Food: 40 pounds
Milk:  231 unopened milk cartons

Lunch:
Food: 180 pounds
Milk:   75.4 pounds (liquid milk separated from the carton by students at lunch)

The food waste in pounds may or may not seem like much for a day, but when replicated over a year, or a student’s six-year (K-5th grade) elementary career, the numbers escalate very quickly.

Food Waste over one year at Bayyari Elementary School:

Breakfast:
Food: 7,200 pounds
Milk:  41,580 unopened milk cartons

Lunch:
Food: 32,400 pounds
Milk:  13,572 pounds (liquid milk separated from the carton by students at lunch)

Food Waste over a six-year span of the typical elementary student (K-5th grade):

Breakfast:
Food: 143,200 pounds
Milk:  249,480 unopened milk cartons

Lunch:
Food: 194,400 pounds
Milk:  122,148 pounds (liquid milk separated from the carton by students at lunch)

For one day, at one school with 640 students, we collected enough milk and food to feed several of the families in the community who are struggling with food insecurity. At Bayyari Elementary alone, roughly 95 percent of the families qualify for free or reduced school meals.

It is hard to come up with a decent response when several of the students ask why it is against “regulations” to redistribute “untouched & unopened” food and milk cartons to families in need.

I have always had a passion for reforming our food system, and this food audit is another small insight into a complex problem. Although the students, staff, and I were baffled by the data, I see opportunity for change in their bitter reactions to the results. I hear creativity in action when my 5th grade students talk about solutions. Working with food service staff to plan cafeteria taste tests to help students appreciate healthy produce revitalizes my spirits.

Check the FoodCorps Arkansas blog for updates on how we’re serving in Springdale, Ark., to create healthier student bodies—not healthier school trash cans.

For more information on reducing food waste, see the Environmental Protection Agency’s webpage, www.epa.gov/foodrecovery. The page includes links to other resources, including a guide for food service providers, Putting Surplus Food to Good Use at www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/pubs/food-guide.pdf, a food waste audit log at ww.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/pubs/food-waste-log.pdf, and a webinar series on sustainable food management at http://yosemite.epa.gov/R10/ECOCOMM.NSF/climate+change/sustainablefoodwebinars.

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