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Schools Are the Key to Combatting the Food Waste Epidemic

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A common saying within the English lexicon is that ‘Ignorance is bliss’, meaning that what one does not know cannot hurt them. Americans specifically are ignorant to a great amount of issues, even ones occurring within their own households, and more specifically, food waste. Many Americans grew up regarding food in the same way – that it is infinite and there is no harm done if, say, a bruised tomato or banana is thrown out. Americans frequent stuffed grocery stores that essentially desensitize their consumers to how our food is grown, who harvests it, how it is shipped and processed, and so much more. The lack of respect we have for the food that we have and where it comes from can be attributed to us becoming accustomed from a young age to disregard these sorts of issues. If we were to educate Americas youth about sustainable eating practices, the next generation will be better equipped to combat the blight of personal food waste.

Throughout history, major societal changes have been brought on by those youthful and educated. Movements for the rights of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community and for civil rights are two of the most notable in America’s recent history (Hall, 2016; Carson, 1999; Harlin, 2011). They were not enacted by those who were old and had grown up their entire lives with those ideals; they were initiated by the youth of our country not being satisfied with their treatment (Hoskins, 2017). In their dedication to make these changes, they were able to change so many people’s minds regarding their views of people of differing races and sexual orientations and educated newer generations about these issues and their importance so that they could persist further. The best hope that we have as a country to combat food waste is to do our part to educate the youth of today about this daily problem that they themselves are contributing to.

Food waste is a monumental problem that is currently is currently afflicting our nation. Paratore (2014) stated that 40% of all of our food is wasted. If that percentage could be reduced by even 1%, there would be over $2 million worth of food that would be saved; this saved food could then potentially go to more worthy causes, like the feeding of our nation’s homeless population. By volume, the quantity of food waste at the individual level is larger than corporation level losses for all food categories, except for fats and oils (Buzby, Wells, & Aulakh, 2014). The amount of resources devoted to growing produce and raising livestock is staggering. To produce just one pound of beef, an approximate 1,847 gallons of water must be used (Hoekstra & Heek, 2017). Collectively, agriculture uses 70% of available fresh water, 33% of available land, and 30% of global energy (Pearson, Stone, & King, 2019). Over 33,099 cows were slaughtered in 2018, and since it takes approximately 8 hours of labor to raise one cow, over 263,792 hours are spent raising and slaughtering these animals. The amount of time, effort, and money dedicated to doing this is essentially wasted on the estimated 13 billion pounds of red meat that is thrown out annually by consumers. In comparison, industrial food loss only accounts for 3 billion pounds of red meat loss yearly. The statistics for most other food groups are not significantly better, some even being significantly worse than those for red meat. Over 25.2 billion pounds of vegetables are wasted annually, with 18.2 of that being attributed to consumers, and over 25.4 billion pounds of dairy products are lost, with 16.2 of that because of individuals (USDA, 2019a). As a collective, we are consistently wasting gargantuan amounts of food, a majority of which is fine to consume, just upon the bases of reasons like less-attractive-than-average appearance and misleading sell-by dates.

In addition to the wasted time, resources, and food that come with food waste, there are also tons of greenhouse gas emissions being released into the atmosphere for no reason. There are many sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions from transportation, electricity, industry, and commercial and residential housing are attributed for most, but 9% is caused by agriculture. This can be attributed to the raising of livestock which produces methane and substances within agriculture soils like synthetic and organic fertilizers and the growth of nitrogen-fixing crops that emit nitrous oxide, but a majority is attributed to cattle emissions (EPA, 2019b). One dairy cow can produce 70 to 120 kilograms of methane annually, which means that an estimated 105 billion kilograms of methane are being released yearly solely due to cattle (Wallace et al., 2019). When that meat is wasted, one is doing much more than simply adding to the United States ever mounting landfills. People are directly impacting methane emissions to our atmosphere. The largest portion of municipal landfills is composed of food, at a near 28% (EPA, 2016). The amount of methane being added to the atmosphere is staggering, and when this meat is not consumed, the unneeded additions to the planet’s ozone layer destruction is meaningless and immensely harmful to our planet. If the amount of meat personally purchased were to be decreased to account for what a typical person actually eats, there would be so much less wasted food in the long run.

Currently, over $1.2 billion worth of food is discarded via lunch food in America, according to the Cohen et al. (2013). When an approximated 13.9% of all households in America are food-insecure, this is simply unacceptable (USDA ERS, 2019a). The best hope that we have to change our current habits is to educate the new generation regarding these topics. To do so, the most obvious choice is to implement food waste education into the already existing nutrition curriculum in our nation’s elementary schools, which would be through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Programs that attempt to improve the health of these children have already been implemented, like the ChooseMyPlate program, the presidential fitness challenge, and Michelle Obama’s Hunger-Free Kids Act (USDA, 2019b; HHS, 2017; USDA FNS, 2014; Concannon, 2012). Often when regarding making changes to the NSLP, the childhood obesity epidemic is the foremost concern. The concept of food waste in the NSLP is so insignificant that there are not even official statistics published regarding it. Though there are not official statistics found concerning it, the concept of food waste is still an epidemic as multiple studies have been published with the hope of determining those numbers (Cohen et al., 2013; Smith & Cunningham-Sabo, 2014).

These sorts of changes to the NSLP, like with the ChooseMyPlate program, are implemented without educating the children whom they affect. In doing this, children will persist to lack a respect for what is being given to them and causes them to waste the food they view as “inedible,” like fruits and vegetables, thus encouraging further food waste. They supplement these healthy foods with ones that are detrimental to their health. The average American eats 87% less vegetables, 75% less fruit, and 86% less dairy than the daily recommended intake (Olsen et al., 2015). Instead, Americans are consuming 70% more added sugars, 71% more saturated fats, and 89% more sodium than they should be (Olsen et al., 2015). A large reason for why this is so much more prevalent in the US than in other developed countries would be because of how the media develops a strong influence over us, specifically from a young age.

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Nestle (2013) discusses how the food industry influences its consumers to make poor choices in regard to our diets. We are constantly exposed by advertisements encouraging us to buy over-processed, fat- and sugar-filled products that have serious negative ramifications concerning our health. It would take a considerably larger amount of time, effort, and money to change the diet of the average American if just focused on the adults but changing the tastes of children would be substantially more accessible. In shifting their diets from ones packed with excess carbohydrates and proteins to ones centered around healthy foods and portions would not only aid in combatting the food waste epidemic, but also the exponential obesity problem that our country currently retains. It would not take much to encourage these children to clean their plates or to take less food before lunch. According to the CDC (2019), 18.5% of American children are obese, and these 13.7 million children have been found to have higher chances of becoming obese adults (Gordon-Larsen, P., & Adair, L. S., 2010). In order to make these changes, an amendment would have to be made to the NSLP.

In order to accomplish this monumental goal, cues must be taken from other school lunch programs that conduct food waste education effectively. There are various school lunch programs that do a phenomenal job of educating their children in addition to feeding them health-conscious meals. In Japan, education via food is a major part of students’ days. At lunchtime, students will receive trays of food and serve each other. This simple change enforces responsibility; fosters understanding, decision making, and eating habits for an appropriate diet; acknowledges and develops a respect for those in the food industry; and so much more. The implementation of a more interactive lunch program like this would provide students with a hands-on education regarding food, and as most children are tactile learners, having this kinesthetic sort of program would greatly benefit them. In addition, the program could be centered around developing a respect for the food industry as a whole as well, and deter children from overeating, wasting food, and consuming junk food (Akamatsu, Hasegawa, Ito, & Izumi, 2019). This program is one of the main reasons why the percentage for Japanese people that have a body mass index (BMI) over 30 is only 4.3%, which is the international standard for obesity. As compared the 36.2% of Americans who have a BMI over 30, it is clear that their program is successful and that we are lagging far behind (CIA, 2019).

There are plenty of other countries doing their part as well. In Sweden, for example, there are specific restrictions on food provided in schools in the hopes of deterring that sort of eating; confections, chips, savory snacks, and soft drinks are banned and replaced by fruits, vegetables, red and white meats, and milk (Ministry of Education and Research, 2013). In having a reduction of the access children have to this type of food, they will become less accustomed to it, and thus crave it less often (Ministry of Education and Research, 2013). In analyzing these countries’ systems, the US could certainly draw some inspiration from them. If the United States implemented these sorts of changes to our NSLP and in our lunchrooms, these children’s feelings towards food could be altered for the better, and thus reduce lunchroom food waste, in addition to discouraging overeating and unhealthy eating.

In order for these ideas to actually be executed, a detailed and attainable itinerary must be created. Now is simply not the time to experiment when dealing with this issue. The only way to actually make successful changes would be to implement changes that have been proven to work, like those within Japan and Sweden. With this, the changes must also be mandatory and widespread; there are plenty of regional and state changes that are currently in place whose goal is to reduce food waste within schools, but none of them extend farther than their bordering states, like Delaware’s singular Composting 101 program and Virginia’s Solid Waste Compost Facility Permit (DNREC, 2019; DEQ, 2019). Most of these amendments are centered around what happens after these foods are discarded, and do not even touch upon potential prevention measures that can be taken to combat the problem (EPA, 2019a). There are various simple changes that could be taken to remedy this issue. In providing students with pre-portioned meals that are equivalent to their age group’s daily recommended intake, the children will become accustomed to consuming that volume of food, and thus have less food wasted overall. This would also eliminate the need for trays in schools, which have been found to be linked to overeating, and thus further combat the obesity problem (Thiagarajah, 2013; Rajbhandari-Thapa, J., 2018). In promoting eating practices such as these, children will become more conscious consumers, and develop a lifelong understanding of the problems within the industry so that they may uphold the concept of sustainable eating in their lives, the lives of those around them, and beyond.

Implementing more creative programs in regard to food served within school cafeterias has been shown to encourage healthy eating as well (Packman, 2004); supplying these children basic, boring, and visually unappealing foods does not encourage them to consume them. Instead of having plain noodles and butter, stir fry with vegetables like peas and carrots and a protein like chicken in it could be substituted. In doing this, children will develop a varied view of their foods, and encourage them to eat what they are provided instead of wasting it. As far as education, children could be constantly reminded about what happens to food waste, where their food comes from, and why it is important to reduce the amount that they personally waste via fliers and cards on their lunch tables, and by their lunch monitors. Educating monitors in elementary schools has been shown to reduce food waste as they are constantly surrounded and are shaping the ideals of the children that they are exposed to (Bean et al., 2019). To teach children about the importance of locally produced goods and to teach them to have a respect for where their food comes from, more schools could become involved with programs like the National Farm to School Network, which provides elementary and middle schools with food and farming education via providing services like local food sourcing and school gardens (National Farm to School Network, 2019).

Despite the fact that various federal agencies discourage wasting food, the amount of information regarding how they can reduce their personal food waste is lacking, like maintaining sufficient food storage. An approximate 4% to 10% of food is discarded before it is even served within the cafeteria, due to over-ordering, overproduction, trim waste, expiration, and spoilage (Broad Lieb et al., 2016). There simply needs to be more information provided by the government regarding this issue so that schools will not have to waste unnecessary food. Certain other changes can be made, like in providing financial incentives to reduce individual food waste and implementing economic incentives for corporations (Jovanovic, 2018; Parry, James, & LeRoux, 2015). Until then, regarding changes that can be made post, there are various options that can be made on the part of the schools and by the community in which they reside. There are multiple small organizations that take excess food from their school cafeterias to make meals for their communities, two of the most notable of which is Food Recovery Network (2019) and Food Rescue (2019). Excess and discarded produce can be used to create local gardens for their school’s community.

The key to fighting the food waste problem is in the education of our nation’s youth, and there is a plethora of options that we can make in order to achieve this: varying their diets, educating them on the importance of food waste-centered education and how personally they can combat the problem, and so much more. In making changes like these, future generations will be better equipped to make smart decisions in regard to their food. All of these moves could potentially encourage a deeper care for the food that we eat, who produces it, and the planet on which we live. In teaching these things to younger demographics, it can hopefully extend to future generations to have a greater respect for these issues and to take accountability for their actions to hopefully reduce the prodigious food waste endemic.

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Schools Are the Key to Combatting the Food Waste Epidemic. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved October 3, 2023, from
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