Fight Food Waste, Starting with Kids

School Lunch

When I was growing up, cleaning my plate was the expectation. If I simply couldn’t eat another bite, I was instructed to cover my plate and save it in the fridge for later. The trash bin was the absolute last destination. Today, teaching kids about food stewardship is more important than ever, and for more reasons than the ones I grew up on like, “because I told you so!”

Food Waste In Schools

American schools toss an estimated one billion dollars of food into the trash every year. That’s roughly $4 million a day! In recent years, school lunch programs have seen a 56% spike in wasted food due to federal guidelines instated to offer kids healthier lunch items regardless of whether they wanted to eat them or not.

Kids at Lunch

Letting kids pick the components of their lunches may lead to less food wasted | image: U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr

Another culprit is the diminished quality of food in our nation’s school lunches. Many kids are served highly processed, sugar and salt laden foods that have been selected by schools on the basis of price point rather than nutritional value. One reporter even blogged about her year eating school lunches – and certainly I don’t blame any kid for tossing some of what was served.

Unfortunately, the fact stands that landfill space isn’t getting any bigger.

Addressing The Problem, Starting With Kids

Of course, kids don’t understand the repercussions of their cafeteria actions. Kids eat what they want regardless of regulations mandating that they put an apple or carrots onto their lunch trays. Currently, kids in schools are inadvertently learning that there are little to no consequences for throwing away half of their lunches. So perhaps kids are where the solution should begin.

Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, shed some light in a recent article on strategies to improve food stewardship by kids in schools:

  • Offer, Not Serve – Forcing food choices onto kids can result in reactance. When given options, students feel like they made the choice themselves and are more likely to actually consume their chosen items.
  • Hype Up Healthy – Just like adults in the grocery stores, kids respond to creative and positive marketing that makes them want to make better choices.
  • Educate On What Happens Next – Once food is in the trash, it is out of sight, out of mind to kids and many adults as well. It is important to teach our next generation of home cooks and environmental stewards what happens to that food once it’s scraped from the plate. Knowledge is power, after all.
  • Make The Food Worth EatingNo one wants to eat gross food. So why make kids eat it? If the food is delicious, kids will eat it. End of story.

Old habits die hard. So why not make it easy and instill good habits in our youth from the get go?

Much like the anti-littering and recycling campaigns that were rolled out during my elementary school days, food stewardship education should also become a staple in our children’s developmental years. After all, these kids are the future of our nation and of our planet, so let’s give them the educational tools they need to succeed!


Melissa is an Impact Mill contributer based in Seattle with a passion for meshing the worlds of business and sustainability. Her interests include food, rock climbing, ultimate frisbee, big data, and NPR. Melissa holds a B.A. in Business with a Concentration in Sustainability from ASU.