No Small Potatoes – How to Reduce Food & Packaging Waste From School Lunches

Despite thought and forward-thinking updates in schools, school design, and classroom curriculum, grade school cafeterias have not changed significantly in the past 50 years. School kids are still either buying their lunch, which they receive on a tray ("hot lunch"); or they bring lunch from home ("cold lunch"). School lunches often include a self-serve salad bar with a nice variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain rolls; a healthy improvement over years past. However, an intense amount of good food goes to waste: whole sandwiches, unheaten fruit, unopened cups of yogurt and applesauce, and untouched bags of chips have all been found in waste audits performed at local schools.

Unfortunately, these schools were not unique. A comprehensive study from Great Britain recently revealed that one third of all food purchased is thrown away, of which 61 percent could have been eaten. Other studies have found that in the US, an estimated 40 percent to 50 percent of all food ready for harvest never gets ateen. The average family of four throws away nearly $ 600 a year in edible meats, vegetables, fruit, and grain products.

Returning to the grade school waste audit, it was disclosed that 17 percent of the trash generated at the school was food waste and 24 percent was food-packaging waste. Other schools have found that up to one third of their trash stream is comprised of food waste. Considering that the schools have to pay both for the wasted food and the waste management, addressing how food comes to the schools and what happens to it is worth a closer look.

So what can be done to stem the tide of good food gone landfill?

Start at the beginning: reduce what is provided for lunch . While free-choice salad bar offerings are an excellent idea, kids often take more than they can eat in one sitting. Signs and classroom guidance can help everyone remember to "take what you want, but eat what you take." Cold lunch diners can also usually bring less food and still be satisfied – read on for more details.

Pass it on: have a "no thanks" table . Anything bought from home that is unopened, such as yogurt cups, bags of chips, granola bars, applesauce cups and the like can be dropped off at a "no thanks" table where other kids can find something they like. Although there are some issues such as allergy concerns and the stigma associated with "the used food table", they are not insurmountable. Food left over at the end of each day would be welcomed at a shelter or food bank.

Tackle the tabletop culture: use reusable containers. It has been observed that when a sack lunch is packed in baggies and disposables, any leftover food – like a whole sandwich – is seen as disposable, just like the containers it came in. The same holds true for prepackaged foods, like chips, crackers or cookies in single-serve bags. However, when lunch is packed in reusable containers, unheaten food is returned to the container and put back in the lunch box. This has several immediate and valuable benefits: first, based on the quantities that come home after school, portions can be adjusted accordingly. Second, if there is any leftover food, it usually becomes a ready-made after-school snack (assuming the lunch box has an ice pack to keep everything fresh till mid-afternoon).

It was recently revealed that milk cartons, contrary to common wisdom and due in part to the current economic downturn, usually do not get recycled when they are dropped out of the waste stream but are instead thrown out with the rest of the trash. Furthermore, kids rarely drink the full eight ounces of milk they provide, resulting in additional waste. Schools should consider investing in washable cups and a milk dispenser, both to eliminate the single-use cartons and to reduce the wasted milk. This also has its own issues, one of which is the time necessary to wash the cups after use. Again, this is not insurmountable, but may only be a shift in behavior away from stocking the refrigerated milk case to handling the wash. Students themselves can fill the dishwasher trays as well.

Address the school culture: have recess before lunch. Many schools report that cafeteria time is frequently cut short because kids are in a rush to go to recess. The result is that many kids never eat at all, and spend the afternoon hungry and unable to concentrate. Several school districts throughout the US have implemented a reverse strategy: kids go directly to recess for their mid-day break, after which they return to the cafeteria for lunch, where they stay until it's time to return to the classroom. Reports from Montana schools indicate that "recess before lunch" programs improved student behavior on the playground, in the cafeteria, and in the classroom and resolved in less wasted food. One middle school reported a 50 percent drop in "plate waste" (food thrown away), and a decrease of 60 percent in clinical actions related to the lunchroom over a three year period. The teachers also reported better concentration and more effective time management with the recess before lunch program.

Finish at the end: offer composting. Some food waste is just that – inedible parts, like banana peels, eggshells and coffee grounds. Many schools have introduced compost bins to help manage these leftover bits, often in association with school garden projects.

As with any change, the usual guidance applies: find advocates among the school staff and parents; research where similar strategies have been attempted and consider whether the results would apply at your own school; consider how every step in a new program might impact classroom time, staff time, and staff resources; and communicate, communicate, communicate to students, parents, teachers, and staff.

Schools are embracing, and teaching, a refreshing environmental message, but they could drive that message home if they applied it to the simplest of everyday activities such as eating lunch. By reducing food and food packaging waste, families and schools alike save money both by reducing the loss of good food to landfills and by avoiding having to pay for its disposal. In today's budget-conscious home and school economic conditions, that's no small potatoes.

Source by Nancy Myers

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