Earlier this fall, at a sold-out forum in New York City organized by the Chicago-based Food Tank, a lineup of movers and shakers in the American food movement explained how massive our food waste problem has become. As well as the low-hanging opportunities to reduce it.
New York City chefs, like Mary Cleaver, use nose-to-tail and root-to-shoot principles to minimize waste; Eric Ripert’s a role-model ambassador for City Harvest, the world’s largest and oldest food rescue organization; Nick Nuttall of the U.N. Environment Programme went on the Today Show to dish cooking advice with another model ambassador, Giselle Bundchen, who wore a T-shirt promoting the U.N.’s new global “Think.Eat.Save” campaign. The founder of AmpleHarvest.org showed how his service (“the Google of food pantries”) connects home gardeners with a surplus to nearby soup kitchens who need produce. Tristam Stuart, founder of the Feeding the 5000 campaign, showed us how much could be done with a dance floor, disco ball and goal to make soup for thousands entirely from rescued food. An EPA scientist reported that food waste accounts for as much as 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from the food sector. Dana Gunders of NRDC described their new report showing that misuse and misunderstanding of sell-by dates cause Americans to throw away mountains of perfectly good food; the CEO of Trader Joe’s has suggested we could stock entire grocery stores just with affordable, expired foods. As American Wasteland author Jonathan Bloom has noted, “Once you begin to see food waste, you can’t un-see it.”
For my part, I reached out to Edible magazine colleagues to learn what schools and school food service were doing to reduce food waste in the short term and build constituency of eaters to prevent food waste over the long term.
From Edible Ojai in California, the Ojai Healthy Schools program teaches kids about composting, waste reduction and good recycling skills, as part of what it calls the “next stage in our evolution as a farm-to-school program.” In other words, they are melding food literacy and ecological literacy. So the students and teachers in Ojai have been decorating composting bins and recycling bins to make them more eye-catching and to encourage use.
At a larger scale, Edible Manhattan has previously reported on citywide programs to recycle fryer oil and expand the composting of apartment-dwellers. But we also learned about the relatively new New York City School Food Waste Compost Program, administered by the city’s Department of Education and the Department of Sanitation, which makes compost bins available to city cafeterias and kitchens. It hasn’t been rolled out to every school, but many schools have stations for children themselves to separate out unfinished milk, apple cores and napkins with big buckets labeled “compost.” (Check out the video here.) This might be the largest in the nation, and it didn’t exist a few years ago.
From Edible Nutmeg in Connecticut, we learned that the Norwich Public Schools worked with two local soup kitchens, the parent teacher organization and a local Girl Scouts troop to organize a big food recovery drive. It was first inspired by the excess food inventory sometimes at schools just before summer break or another school holiday. But it grew into making regular deliveries of excess food as well as getting the food involved in food donation drives throughout the year.
From Edible East End on Long Island, where we recently reported on the surge in school gardens, worm composting has been featured at all-school assemblies in the Sag Harbor elementary and middle schools. Worm bins in classrooms are a great scale even for small schools and schools without access to outdoor space. And good scale to handle waste from snack time. Teachers used the bins to illustrate food web lessons, and the compost is eventually used by the kids to plant out seedling trays and then they start the process again. One classroom started with one pound of worms feeding on newspaper strips and corn grit, and two months later had what the students weighed out as three pounds of worms and five pounds of compost!
And, finally, Edible Green Mountains in Vermont connected us to Shelburne Farms where education director Jen Cirillo said Vermont school districts have seen an increase in food waste due to new federal dietary guidelines that require food service to be serving more fruits and veggies, a trend being seen throughout the nation. At one Vermont school they have seen a 10 pound-per-day increase in compost! (They considered raising a pig on it, but the idea got tabled.) In the Burlington school district, schools have “Compost Captains”—kids in charge of educating other kids about compost; students made a PSA for local waste department, and organized a Trash on the Lawn Day, a schoolwide event where students and teachers literally take all the trash out of the school and sort it.
In other words, it’s not enough to have school gardens. We need to teach from soil to soil, the entire process. And the home economics practices of how to use leftovers, how to understand sell-by dates and take them with a grain of salt. It really has to be drilled into them. Because—like trash itself—not all kids and adults will pick it up the first time they see it.