May 29, 2023
Despite the overall benefits of the National School Lunch Program, one problem that has become prominent in many schools in the Bay Area is food waste. The food requirements outlined in the NSLP force kids to take unwanted food, inevitably causing that food to end up in the trash.
Staff members strive to combat the food waste problem by looking at the consumption rates of foods and changing the menu to consist of more popular meals. But while this helps the problem, it does not solve it.
The goal of the NSLP is to ensure that all students consume nutritious meals from all the major food groups. But even if you require a student to take food, if they don’t want to eat it, they won’t.
Food waste is most applicable to vegetables. On any given day at Carlmont, you can find trash cans full of uneaten carrot packets, unopened milk, and uneaten entrees. By looking in just some of the trash cans throughout the campus, we found almost 90 wasted entrees and sides over three days.
“It’s always a problem recently. They should have the option to choose if they want carrots or not, but the kitchen has to give it to them,” Jerome Clarke, Plant Manager for Carlmont High School, said.
School lunch officials recognize this problem and constantly seek new ways to combat food waste. Some schools, such as Fox Elementary School, utilize food share tables to reduce waste. With this system, kids can place unwanted food on the table, where other kids can come and take it. But this method doesn’t eliminate food waste; at the end of the day, lots of food still ends up in the garbage.
“There are some kids that will pick it [school lunch] up and then leave it on the share table, and that gets registered as a compliant picked-up meal. Sometimes someone else will pick it up, sometimes not,” the Nutrition Clerk for Fox Elementary said.
According to many teachers and staff members at Fox Elementary, food waste has become even more present in California with the Universal Meal Program. At Fox Elementary, parents order school lunches for their kids in advance by choosing from a list of options. Because meals are free, even more parents have started utilizing the NSLP. The problem arises when parents don’t consult their kids on their preferred meal choice, but instead choose something their kids may not like.
“I do think that people order food because it’s free. You know, instead of just telling the kids, ‘Do you really like mac and cheese?’ and just saying ok, we’ll pack a lunch today since you don’t like that entree. Instead, the parents will just order free lunch. They’ll go, ‘What the heck, it’s free.’ So that does bother me,” said the nutrition clerk. “There’s less food waste when the parents are packing lunches kids enjoy.”
The lunch staff does try their best to save food for the following days, but items such as meat and cheese must be thrown out at the end of the day.
Some have tried to reduce food waste by bringing leftover food, such as apples and carrots, to nearby shelters. Not only does this reduce food waste, but it benefits other people with food insecurities. This method contains the same problem of saving food, however. Non-perishable meals cannot be brought to these shelters and once again end up in the trash.
“If it can be saved, it’s saved. If it can be donated, it’s donated. At Carlmont, I had a young man that used to pick up the leftover fruits because students wouldn’t take them. We had a share box that he would take down to the shelter,” Jonaidi said.
Additionally, food waste creates more problems than the apparent waste of food. Because many students don’t throw their trash in the proper bins, food waste creates issues with the ability to recycle products, contributing to even more waste.
“I think a lot of people take the food from hot lunches, and they don’t eat a lot of it, and they throw it away, maybe not in the right bins, or they just leave it on the ground,” Chloe Khachadourian, co-chair of the Sequoia Union High School Sustainability Committee, said.
While there is no obvious solution to the food waste problem, certain changes to the NSLP could be made to combat the problem.
“We’re talking about getting food carts, where if you don’t want your food, you can come and drop it off, and you can donate it to other people that need food,” Khachadourian said. “I think maybe just having some type of limit. Really think if you’re not going to eat the food, don’t get it.”