Teaching Innovative Ways to Combat Food Waste
by Larraine Roulston
Recognizing that food waste has become an environmental issue, many schools now have programs to address this problem. In Canada, a 2014 report by Value Chain Management Waste International states that Canadians discard $31 billion dollars worth of food each year. According to K12 Food Rescue, a US group in Indiana, an estimated one billion food items are discarded by K to 12 students across their country annually. Whether researching territories or age groups, it is clear that food waste in affluent countries is a huge problem.
How much food does a person discard? When asked, most would claim that they waste very little; however, that perception usually doesn’t match reality as found in a recent survey by the University of Alberta. Its waste audits from participating residents revealed that food waste on average was much higher than individuals realized. In school lunch rooms students are becoming alerted to the large amounts of uneaten food. Perhaps they were just too full, couldn’t make a trade with anyone, felt it wasn’t fresh enough or didn’t have enough time during the lunch period to eat everything. Whatever the case, it doesn’t mean good food belongs in a landfill, nor should it be composted if it is still edible. Rather than tossing out fruit, cheese or a bun, many schools have begun setting up food share programs. With sufficient bins located in an appropriate area, students can place certain uneaten items where they are offered to other students or donated to local charities. By allowing students themselves to set up and manage a Food Rescue Station, teachers will be instilling socially responsible attitudes that will help to build a healthy community. Students will develop respect for food from farm to fork, with appreciation for a farmer’s time, water usage, transportation and the carbon footprint. Leadership skills will be enhanced and students will feel empowered when milestones are reached.
Once leaving high school, many students will set their goal towards entering the hospitality services. Those attending Toronto’s George Brown College’s culinary program will discover this institution has started reducing food waste by allowing budding chefs to take home their creations or donate them to the school’s student food bank. The food waste reduction program, launched by Jason Inniss, chef and professor at George Brown, began in May 2016 in partnership with the school’s student association. As students whipped up delicious meat dishes, gourmet salads and desserts drizzled with caramel sauce, Inniss decided to give away the edible creations to those who couldn’t afford meals. “We wanted to make sure our students are food secure,” said Inniss.
When entering the workforce, students will discover that within the food industry of cafeterias, restaurants, eating venues and institutions, managers are discouraging staff from being wasteful. They are also encouraging their chefs to create recipes with foods that otherwise would be discarded.
At some schools, composting of lunches that cannot be eaten is on the curriculum. In this particular endeavour, Hawaii’s Lanikai Elementary Charter School has taken the challenge to a whole new level. As shown in their eight minute video, students at Lanikai embrace the change by demonstrating that unwanted food is their greatest resource. Through the guidance of resource recovery specialist Mindy Jaffe, these students are on the path towards a zero waste revolution. Jaffe explains, “People are realizing that we just can’t continue dealing with waste the way we do. We talk about food agriculture and security. Until you have good soil, you don’t have any of that. The food that is thrown away every day will create organic soil. This is absolute gold.”
During the 2014–15 school year, these efforts were second to none when 14,586 pounds of food scraps were collected and processed on site. Their video instructs how easy it is to build a hot compost pile. To do so, simply lay a base of branches for ventilation and drainage, followed by mulch that can be obtained from local tree trimmers, and top with a layer of unwanted lunch scraps. Keep alternating until about 1000 pounds of food has been added. Poke in a few holes to provide air flow, cover and let it decompose. In six months a rich soil is ready to be screened by fourth graders.
Vermicomposting is another great technology that they demonstrated. Children of all ages love to work with the industrious red wiggler and Indian blue worms that consume 100% of the school’s paper waste as well as all prep waste from the kitchen. Second graders water the worms daily and assist with the semi-annual vermicast harvest. Third graders are tasked to prepare bedding from discarded cardboard and to screen the finished castings. Creating compost is natural and safe. Once this becomes a habit, it’s a great way to give back to the earth. Environmental education is not enough; it has to be practised. When students compost and grow vegetables they eat, they become actively engaged in closing the loop.
The joy of accomplishing something positive for their community is reflected in the faces of support staff, educators and students alike. Their testimonials speak volumes. Lanikai Charter School won the EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge for K – 12 schools and is #1 in the nation! The Zero Waste Revolution is a program of the O’ahu Resource Conservation and Development Council.