Michigan schools take strides to tackle food waste

Food waste is a growing problem and with the help of Michigan State University Extension, Michigan schools are educating youth on the issue.

In March, Food@MSU hosted a discussion on food waste at the Michigan State University Recycling Center. Throughout the discussion, both participants and panelists highlighted the potential role that schools can play in educating children on the nutritional and environmental costs of food waste. At a time when over 30 percent of food is wasted at the retail and consumer level, schools throughout Michigan are looking to increase childhood nutrition and decrease school food service costs through food waste reduction. Read below to find out some of the ways schools throughout the state are tackling food waste in their cafeterias and classrooms.

Food Waste Assessment at Traverse Heights Elementary

At Traverse City’s Traverse Heights Elementary, a partnership between Food Rescue, Oryana Natural Foods Market, Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District Farm to School, Grow Benzie, PE-Nut and FoodCorps is helping lay the groundwork for teaching students about food waste. Following a classroom session using bananas to demonstrate the problem of food waste, the organizations led a tray waste assessment at lunch. They pushed aside the garbage cans to make room for marked bins allowing students to easily divide their waste, and then assessed the impact.

Out of the 137 pounds of waste from student’s trays collected that day, only seven pounds of that was actual garbage.  The remaining 130 pounds were food waste, the majority of which came from the salad bar. The waste assessment provided opportunities for teachers to integrate the lesson into the classroom through STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) activities, such as displaying the results of the assessment in bar graphs.

This simple assessment is leading to easily implemented strategies to reduce food waste. Students are taking it upon themselves to create peer-to-peer education campaigns focused on providing easy ways the school can reduce waste, such as encouraging students to take only what they will eat at the salad bar and providing sliced apples instead of whole apples. In addition to helping curb the environmental impact of food waste and ensure students are getting adequate nutrition from the foods they eat, they also help food service save money by reducing the excess products, making the initiatives a win-win.

Smarter Lunchrooms at Munising Public Schools

“If just one student thinks about how it impacts the planet, where their waste goes, I call that a success.” – Vicki Ballas, Michigan State University Extension.

Staff at Munising Public Schools, with the support of MSU Extension, were trying to measure fruit and vegetable consumption when they noticed that students were throwing away a startling amount of food. By incorporating some principles of the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, free or low-cost strategies that nudge students towards healthier behaviors in the cafeteria, they started to see the impact on food waste. They began by educating students on the impact of food waste, not only on the environment but also through the lost nutrition from food not consumed. Staff then incorporated share bowls, allowing students to place uneaten food, like whole fruit and unopened packages, for other students to use later. The food waste that does remain is now integrated into a composting system that nourishes plants in their greenhouse, diverting waste from the landfills.

In 2018, Blue Cross Blue Shield Building Healthy Communities, in partnership with the Michigan Department of Education and Michigan State University Extension, are piloting a statewide Smarter Lunchroom Detective Curriculum, which encourages students to eat more fruits and vegetables by collecting data and utilizing scientific practices to implement food waste reduction strategies. Through Building Healthy Communities, schools can apply for funding to support partnerships with MSU Extension to test student driven solutions designed to increase fruit and vegetable selection in the school lunch program. MSU Extension staff are available to support schools in implementing Smarter Lunchrooms practices.

Reducing Food Waste at West Michigan Academy of Environmental Science

What started out as a strategy to reduce food costs is now embedded into the school’s mission of environmental stewardship at West Michigan Academy of Environmental Science (WMAES) in Grand Rapids. Their efforts span the classroom and the lunchroom. In class, students learn about where their food comes from, how food is produced and the amount of energy needed to grow and get food to the school. Through this education, students are more aware of the energy costs of the food they consume and the impact of what is wasted.

While educational campaigns have helped build student awareness of food waste, the real change has come from making sure cafeteria staff were providing the students with food that they like to eat. It may seem simple, but the school has found that children waste less food when they enjoy eating it. The Food Service Director makes an effort to connect with students in the cafeteria and talk about what they like and the health and nutrition impacts of what they eat. This practice has helped shift the menus in ways that encourage students to eat more and waste less. Now, students are interested in what they are eating and take only what they will eat from the salad bar and from the windows. “The greatest impact on our students has been better nutrition, taking an interest in their food choices and relating that to their education in the classroom.” Says Holly Orians, Environmental Education Specialist at WMAEC.

Schools interested in reducing food waste can find simple solutions in these free resources:

  • Creative Solutions to Ending School Food Waste is a simple infographic from the United States Department of Agriculture that provides easy tips to help reduce food waste in schools.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has provided a fact sheet with best practices for reducing food waste

There are also a number of federal grants available for addressing food waste:

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