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How do you like them apples? 2022-09-12 오후 12:05:00

School cafeterias contribute to food waste as food insecurity plagues America.

In the middle of a school courtyard, surrounded by picnic benches and students eating lunch, sits an unassuming trash can. As students yell across the area to their friends, the sound echoes of concrete and carries over the black can. Once in a while, a student will stand up and leave their friends behind to toss something in the trash can. No one takes a look inside the trash can, no one wants to see other people’s garbage.

If someone happened to look inside, however, they would find piles of perfectly good food - some completely untouched and others barely eaten.

“I do see [food waste] in the trash cans,” said Katinka Lennemann. “Sometimes you see full lunches that have been opened or just one bite taken out of them. More often you see it with the fruits like apples - specifically uncut apples. You find whole apples. You see one bite taken and the whole thing is in the trash can.”

Lennemann is a high school cafeteria worker at Carlmont High School in California. She is also a member of the Sequoia Union High School District’s Sustainability Committee. She’s currently working with Carlmont’s Green Team Club to introduce composting and Food Share carts (tables to put uneaten food that was taken from the cafeteria to be reused). She is not alone in trying to change the food waste habits of school cafeterias, a problem particularly noticeable in America.

A study done by Penn State researcher of agricultural engineering Christine Costello showed that American students waste up to 53% of their plate, more than any other country analyzed. In fact, about 530,000 tons of food waste is generated by American schools, according to the World Wildlife Fund. From New York to California, schools of all education levels are struggling to limit what they put into landfills. One strategy to accomplish this goal is to establish composting programs. Composting is the decomposition of organic material to feed wildlife and create nutrient-rich soil.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that only 4.1% of wasted food was composted in 2018. Non-composted food can’t be reused, meaning that any materials applied to grow these crops are wasted. This includes the clean water, which could be used for drinking, and the soil, which can create runoff and kill off marine life. As well, when food is sent to landfills, it produces methane, a greenhouse gas. This contributes to climate change, leading to unpredictable weather (like wildfires and droughts), habitat destruction and food supply disruption.

However, many schools struggle with starting compost plans. For instance, Carlmont High School doesn’t compost at all. According to Lennemann, this might be because it’s a strategy that’s developed over time.

“Sorting waste is somewhat of a habit that you have to build up and if the school you’re coming from - your elementary school or middle school - aren’t waste sorting already, high schoolers won’t be in the habit of already doing that,” Lennemann said.

Organizations like the Food Waste Warriors are attempting to implement new strategies - like building milk dispensers, changing eating time and starting composting programs - in lower level schools to educate on waste minimization and build sustainable habits.

According to the Food Waste Warriors’ website, these strategies saved 3% of the participating schools’ food waste. This may not sound like much, but if every school enacted them it would save 57,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide release, 627 million gallons of water and 51 million dollars per year.

Lennemann also thinks getting more student input on cafeteria menus will decrease how much gets thrown away - students will eat more if they like what they are eating. This is evident in Carlmont’s cafeteria. One student, Andrew Tolu, dislikes the food, going so far as to describe the burger as “crunchy.”

“It’s so concerning. I bit into it one time and it fought back,” Tolu said. He added that they rarely had pizza, which was the only good thing on the menu. “So, for the last month of school, I had lunch maybe twice a week,” he said.

Students reluctance to eat cafeteria food leads to excess meals being thrown out since quotas aren’t met. This problem is particularly noticeable with milk and fruit, since laws are in place that require California high schools to serve these with entrees. Often, you can see piles of milk cartons and frozen fruit cups stacked in front of the cafeteria’s registers - uneaten and uncomposted.

“A lot of students either take it and then they don’t eat it, or they just don’t take it at all, so I think there’s a bit of a food waste problem with that,” Lennemann said.

This waste is mostly unnecessary, as these laws were created with nutrition in mind, but dairy doesn’t actually have very much nutritional value. According to Harvard’s School of Public Health, dairy products are the main source of saturated fat in American’s diets. Any calcium that milk provides can be found in healthier sources like leafy vegetables and beans.

On college campuses, there are usually more food options and therefore more waste (the average college student wastes 112 pounds of food per day according to the National Resources Defense Council and the average high schooler wastes 41 pounds of food per day according to the Rhode Island Environmental Education Association). Groups like the Food Recovery Network work with college students to deliver leftover food to nonprofits.

“Every year we just get more and more and more product as people are looking to have [food surplus recovery] as a solution,” said Regina Anderson, the Food Recovery Network’s executive director, in a website on their website.

One college that partakes in the Food Recovery Network’s mission is Columbia University. Their website says they “aim to be a 0% waste organization.” However, while their website says they donate what they can, much of the food is forcibly wasted due to the Department of Health’s guidelines. This includes anything displayed or cooked in the kitchens, greatly limiting donations.

Their solution to combat this is composting, but this also has its limitations. The website says “meat, chicken, fish, greasy food scraps, fat, oil, dairy, animal waste, litter or bedding, coal or charcoal, coconuts, diseased and/or insect-infested houseplants/soil or biodegradable/compostable plastics” cannot be composted. This doesn’t leave much for the compost - a possible reason why they don’t have compost bins around the campus.

What they can’t donate in food, they attempt to make up for in cutlery, transitioning to compostable plates, bowls, cups and silverware in 2008. However, some students feel this has not been clearly communicated.

“I haven’t composted my food,” said Manuela Vianna, a Columbia Pre-College student. “I didn’t know that their plates were compostable.”

Some groups, like Stop Waste, find composting to be an incomplete solution. They would rather focus on stopping food waste at its source, including limiting overproduction and wasteful cooking techniques.

“Our agency supports with getting compost services set up, but we are trying to move in an upstream direction, really trying to prevent the waste from being generated in the first place because that’s honestly the least resource intensive way to deal with it,” Annalisa Belliss, the Senior Program Services Specialist at Stop Waste, said.

한국외국인학교 (Korea International School)
Kaylee Kim
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