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Teaching Kids About Food Waste

Did you know that about 40% of all food in the U.S. is thrown away? According to the USDA, schools and families with children contribute to this number considerably. Each meal that gets tossed out is a lost opportunity for a child in-need to have a meal. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to reduce our waste in these spaces. This blog will give you the rundown on what food waste is, how it impacts us, and creative ways to teach kids "waste awareness!"


The term "food waste" refers to uneaten or unused food that gets thrown away. Most often this waste is transported to landfills with other garbage, where it can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 40 years to decompose. Food waste occurs at many stages of a food's life, including production, processing, retailing, and consuming.


Food Supply Chain Graphic via eSchoolToday

About 50% of food waste occurs during the production phase, and the other half during the processing, distribution and consumption phases. The later that food is wasted in the food supply chain, the greater the environmental impact. This is because a considerable amount of energy and resources are expended in order to produce, process, store, distribute and prepare it. The good news is that we (as consumers) have immediate control over what's wasted in the consumption phase.


Beyond use of resources, food waste produces a harmful chemical called methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas, which like CO2, contributes to the warming of the earth's atmosphere. This warming creates an array of issues. For instance, the ocean absorbs most of the excess heat from greenhouse gases - warmer oceans mean loss of sea ice in the arctic and antarctic, coral bleaching and loss of breeding grounds for marine life, and increased chances for extreme weather events and coastal erosion. And it doesn’t end there. There are implications for our trees, food and water supply, and just about every other natural thing you can think of. Read more about these implications here.


While we may not think much about tossing out our leftovers after supper, or that crate of strawberries we never got around to eating, these things do have a considerable impact on our environment. Becoming mindful about these behaviors can make a difference – especially if you share them with others in your home, classroom, or community. Educating our youth is the best tool we have in securing a happy and healthy environment for our children to grow and thrive.


So what can we do?


We’ve broken this down into two sections. The first provides actions that can be taken by the adults; the parents, teachers, caretakers, and community leaders. The second section is meant to guide you as you educate the children in your life about preventing food waste.


For the adults:


- Engage Schools: Talk to school officials about starting a compost on-site for cafeteria waste. Request recyclable/compostable packaging for breakfast and lunch items served at your school. Ask to contribute to the school newsletter with information about your school's food waste. Request longer meal periods for school children so they don't have to rush through meals. Ask school officials to consider holding meal service after recess so kids work up more of an appetite, and in turn, waste less food.


- Engage Your Community: Contact community leaders about starting a community garden & compost. Contact local farmers to talk to your school. Get involved with local environmental groups to brainstorm about how to tackle food waste in your community.


- Educate & Implement at Home:

- Find ways to utilize parts of food typically tossed out, like roasting veggie skins or using the tops of carrots in a salad or vegetable broth.

- Save & use leftovers: Have a leftover spinach salad from lunch? Saute it and add it over pasta for dinner. Leftover steamed carrots from dinner? Mash over toast with cinnamon for a tasty breakfast. Get creative!

- Plan for the week & make grocery lists if you can. Only buy what you need.

- Serve appropriate portions. Overloading supper plates may cause excess waste.

- Give kids enough time to eat & they will likely eat more.

- Freeze what you won't use: Save fruits for smoothies, and veggies for broth. Freeze the other half of your gumbo, shepard's pie, or spaghetti sauce to eat another time when you need a quick supper, rather than tossing it out.

- Incorporate learning activities into everyday tasks like making the grocery list, taking out the trash, or cooking supper.


For the kids:


- Ugly Food Taste Test: Present kids with a "normal" vegetable and an "ugly" one. For example, 1 smooth straight carrot and 1 deformed carrot. Have them taste each one (blindfolded or not). Discuss the similarities and differences. Then, use them for a recipe.


- Grow from Scraps: Scrap growing is great for kids because 1) there are plenty of scraps that grow rapidly (hello instant gratification) and 2) it gives kids a big picture view of the life cycle of a food. Some ideas: Place the base of iceberg lettuce, green onions, or celery in a jar with water and watch it sprout in just days. Plant the base of an onion, or clove of garlic in wet soil. Remove the seeds from strawberries, raspberries, or lemons and place in wet soil. There are so many easy-to-grow fruits and vegetables that are likely already on your grocery list or in your kitchen!


- Other Ways to Use Your Scraps: Show kids that there are all kinds of creative ways to use your food scraps! Roast potato skins. Use wilting zucchini and carrots, mushy banana, or browning avocado for baking bread and muffins. Save citrus peels for making tea, or homemade surface cleaner. Throw leftover Parmesan rinds into soup for added flavor. Turn leftover bread into croutons, french toast, or bread pudding. You get the idea!


- Start a Compost: Composting can be really fun for kids! Emptying the scrap pale into the pile, collecting "tea" from a vermicompost, turning the compost pile, and adding compost to your garden are all great activities for kids to learn about decomposition and the full life cycle of a food.


We hope this provided you with a better understanding of food waste issues and some concrete ways to contribute to a healthier world for the little ones in your life. Go forth and do good!


Comment below to tell us how you plan to implement these activities in your home or after school program! Have more ideas? We'd love for you to share those with us, as well!

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