Reflections on food waste

The Our Table conversation on food waste brought Michigan Department of Education health and nutrition assistant director Phil Chase back into the classroom.

The Our Table conversation on food waste brought Michigan Department of Education health and nutrition assistant director Phil Chase back into the classroom.

Back in March 2018, I attended Food@MSU’s Our Table discussion on food waste. I was unfamiliar with the trio of speakers — Jonathan Bloom, Natalie Molnar and Sriram Narayanan — but I was personally drawn to the topic. From my background with project management and different positions within state government, the idea of streamlining, reducing waste and improving any process was enough to get me to check out the discussion.

I had started my new position overseeing school nutrition, early child and adult care nutrition, and food distribution for the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) only two weeks before the talk. I’ve worked for the MDE for the second 12 years of my career in education, but in a totally different division. My MDE job areas had previously been K-12 assessment and educator certification. I came to MDE after spending the first 12 years of my career teaching languages, social studies and technology to middle and high schoolers, as well as preparing teachers to deliver lessons in English as a second language and bilingual education.

At the Our Table event, I found myself back in the classroom, thinking about the times I would create a “safe haven” for my English learners eating their breakfasts before school. I recognized the value a teacher can play in nutrition and guiding good food habits as I recalled telling my students to recycle with care, to take only what they could eat and to ensure that other students had a chance to share the food they didn’t want.

I bought and read Jonathan Bloom’s book “American Wasteland” following the talk. His walkthrough of the multifaceted sources of waste, the reasons why Americans waste 40 percent of our produced food, and his suggestions for change on a micro- and macro-level gave me new eyes to see the food around me that had been thrown away that was otherwise fit for consumption. It was a sobering recognition to be sure — my family has begun to roll their eyes a bit at me when I complain that we overproduce at dinnertime — but we have now instituted a rolling “leftovers night,” which reduces, to some small but helpful degree, the amount of good food we throw away.

Food waste is a problem much larger in scope than a leftovers night for busy families. What does it mean when avoidable spoilage blights tons of produce because our distribution networks don’t have the capacity or money to move the produce that languishes at warehouses? What does it mean when our schools do not participate in safe share tables and instead throw away perfectly good shelf-stable items instead of restocking? What does it mean when our favorite grocery stores and restaurants must dispose of meats and dairy items by the truckload because of errors in refrigeration handling or delivery delays?

Like many social ills that are commonly accepted but could otherwise be improved, food waste is a thing of building sensitivity to the issue before it becomes a thing of directing policy. Bloom’s blog is a solid first stop on the road to seeing with these new eyes. The various sources of data and anecdotal evidence that Bloom has gathered over his years of studying this issue are enough to act at least at home, if not locally and nationally. At the very least, I would recommend readers of the blog to read what he says in his “ACT!” section. At MDE, my team works very closely with community action agencies and food bank councils whose shared mission is to redirect good food that would otherwise be wasted into the hands of the state’s and the nation’s neediest.

Let’s set the table together for reasonable food consumption and reduction of waste. My special thanks to Food@MSU for bringing this important issue to light and hosting an engaging discussion!

Phil Chase is the assistant director of the Michigan Department of Education’s Office of Health and Nutrition Services. You can reach him at chasep2@michigan.gov.


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