Discovering the Root Cause: School Food Waste

A critical component of the SLP model is that projects are as student-driven as possible, at every step of the process. It’s always exciting to see students light up the moment they realize they are “in charge.”

During the first phase, students brainstorm issues of concern, both in their school and community, and then work together to come to consensus on one issue to tackle. Earlier this year, at an elementary school in Vinegar Hill, 5th graders spoke passionately about their experiences receiving “uncooked” food in their school cafeteria.  Although the SLP Faculty member and their classroom teacher quickly realized they were referring to beef burgers that were left pink, not raw, in the middle, they encouraged the students to continue exploring this issue. After choosing uncooked and unhealthy school lunch food as their issue, the students dove into the Research phase.

Their research included surveying the student body and interviewing the school’s dietician. One discovery came as a huge surprise: DOE food arrives at each school pre-cooked. The cafeteria staff merely reheats the food, like the box of beef burgers shared by the dietician and labeled “Ready to eat.” The students were thrown off course – what they assumed was the problem was not an issue at all. But their conversation veered into a different issue: school food waste. They talked about how often students take food they know they aren’t going to eat, and end up throwing it away. Food waste was rampant.

The students quickly changed course. As their research continued, they were appalled to learn that discarded school food is covered in bleach and sent to a landfill thereby causing a secondary problem: pollution. After deciding to teach their fellow students how to make better decisions in the cafeteria, they organized an awareness raising campaign that included a Public Service Announcement (PSA), posters, letters to families, and a school-wide assembly.  Each project was intended both to make sure students eat healthier lunches and create less waste.

The issues and solutions highlighted by the students in their education campaign are not isolated to a single elementary school cafeteria. On average, each American throws away 240 pounds of food every year.  Check out their PSA to learn more about the impact of food waste and how we can all change our habits and help prevent food waste.