The Waste We Make

In the school food system designed to support low-income students, the amount of food in the trash is astounding, encouraging the current landfill and global warming issues.

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My family tries to reduce as much food waste as possible. My parents avoid cooking large amounts of food at a time, and we stay mindful of the portions we serve ourselves to avoid waste. We don’t do it to save every spoonful of rice, but because it is the right thing to do. Why throw out food when someone worked hard to grow, transport, and cook it? However, especially in the United States, food is wasted and no one blinks an eye. Specifically in the school food system designed to support low-income students, the amount of food in the trash is astounding, exacerbating the current landfill and global warming issues and sending a detrimental message to the current generation.

In Stuyvesant’s cafeteria, you can find a rapidly extending line of students coming out with uniformly filled trays. After trying the school food menu for a few days, many choose to only eat certain parts of the meal while wrinkling their noses at the soggy vegetables. Though fruit packages can be placed at the table designated for uneaten packaged foods, many of the cooked portions of the meal end up in the trash and later in landfills. There, they rot and produce methane, a greenhouse gas. The United States alone produces 32.6 million cars’ worth of greenhouse gases through food waste. The worst part is that we won’t be the group most affected by our actions. Instead, those who cannot afford food will suffer from the hurricanes, desertification, and droughts that are the result of climate change.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National School Lunch Program serves lunch to 30 million students in schools every day but wastes about $5 million worth of food daily, amounting to $1.2 billion every school year. The food waste problem is not caused by one specific area, but by factors across categories. For example, the quality of food, how much food is delivered, and the balance between serving healthy food versus what students will actually eat all have impacts on how much waste is generated.

For one, New York City’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services (OFNS) provides meals for nearly 900 thousand students. However, the OFNS is severely underfunded. The budget, $550 million, results in about a $1.40 cost per meal for all the breakfast and lunch menus. With this low cost, it is no question that food quality decreases. When quality decreases, demand decreases, causing consumption to decrease as well.

Additionally, efforts by former First Lady Michelle Obama to introduce healthier school meals, such as limiting sodium in food served, did not increase the amount of students eating healthier. Instead, students throw out bland, overcooked food and opt for packaged food, such as chips or cookies. A solution would be to reintroduce taste enhancers as add-ons to meals as a way of increasing seasoning and the level of customizability in students’ meals.

Additionally, mandates on taking items from various food groups should be lifted to allow students to choose what they will actually eat. The USDA has put into place the Offer vs. Serve strategy, which mandates schools to offer the five food components in minimum amounts. These components include meats (or their alternatives), grains, fruits, vegetables, and milk, and students must take at least three components for their meals. This three component requirement is what drives the issue. If students grab lunch late or have an early lunch and are not hungry, they are not allowed to only take one portion of the meal that they know they will eat but instead must take all portions. OVS should scrap this policy, not only to reduce waste but also to give students a better opportunity to care for themselves, since what is considered a healthy diet varies based on the individual.

Due to economic instability from the pandemic, no one would suggest the idea of wasting in any form. Food waste is harmful to our planet and makes us even more responsible for the damage. The environmental effects of food waste are as great as the economic effects, but the worst impact is that students are taught that it is acceptable to waste. By allowing this problem to continue, we are teaching the next generation to continue our wasteful habits while many in the world look on, hungry.