Waste not, want not

I have lived in the US for more than 15 years now. Yet, every time I walk into a public school lunch cafeteria in the US, I experience culture shock all over again! This is because I have never witnessed food waste on such a large scale in my life.  Every time I witness this, it makes my heart ache, it upsets me so much that it ruins my entire day, and it stays with me for days afterward. This happened yet again today.

I was working with a kindergartener who received a special lunch because he is lactose intolerant. It was a plate with five small slices of pita bread, a cup of hummus, 5 cherry tomatoes, 3 pieces of broccoli, a bunch of carrot sticks, half an orange, and a carton of lactose-free milk. The boy picked up one piece of broccoli and nibbled it for a while. Ten minutes or so later, he got up and asked to be dismissed because he was “done” with his lunch. He then walked up to the waste station (yes, I call it the waste station – it has a huge garbage bin for general garbage and three separate containers for organic waste, liquids, and recyclable products) and one of the staff members took his lunch from him. Here comes the culture shock – the lady then proceeded to dump the unopened carton of milk and the entire contents of his untouched plate, including the unopened tub of hummus into the garbage! But, she sorted the garbage accordingly into the organic waste and recyclables. The unopened carton of milk went into the general garbage because … it was unopened (so she couldn’t tip the milk into the 10-gallon container that is set up there for the leftover milk waste!

I know that children waste food. They are picky eaters and I am sure that most moderately well-off children from all over the world waste food. My kids waste food too (and get severely punished). But, what shocks me about the food waste in schools is that adults waste food without a second thought. Food waste at these schools is an adult-endorsed, school-sanctioned everyday activity! No one bats an eye! Teachers and grown-ups in educational institutions (where they should be educating the kids on the value of food and the morality and ethics of wasting it) don’t even think that anything wrong is going on here. I will never get used to this.

I work as a substitute teacher in a populous public school district in Washington state. My work takes me to a different school every day and over the course of this year, I have worked at about 90% of the schools here. I work with all grade levels from elementary schools to high schools. I have noticed that the elementary schools waste way more food than middle and high schools. By the time the kids are in middle school, they have more control over what they choose for their lunch. They are more likely to choose the junk they actually want to eat and avoid getting stuff they don’t. Elementary school students don’t have much of a choice and get the standard school lunch that has been meticulously balanced to include proper servings of protein, vegetables, fruit, and dairy. This is an effort by the community to instill good eating habits in children at a young age. But, it totally defeats the purpose because all they do is throw it away. They just grow up and then continue eating the unhealthy stuff.

The flexibility of my job allows me to choose my assignments. Early this school year, I substituted for a staff member who worked as a cafeteria monitor and the experience left me so traumatized that I stayed away from elementary school assignments for a while! Most schools here have a small seating area and so, the lunch-times are scheduled based on grade level. This school, like a lot of the other elementary schools, has a waste station with a 10-gallon bucket for milk and other liquid waste. This container fills up and is emptied after each grade finishes eating lunch! That’s roughly 60 gallons of milk (mostly) that is wasted every day in each of the 21 elementary schools in this district alone! I am willing to wager that more than half of the milk that was served that day was wasted. Working in the cafeteria that day, all I could think about were the thousands of cows that are boxed into tiny spaces and made to lactate all their lives so that these people can throw out the food that rightfully belongs to the calves.

I come from a country that has many starving people. I know Indians who struggle to feed their family 3 meals a day. In my culture, asking if you have eaten is a common way of greeting people.  One day, I ran into the 12-year-old daughter of one of my father’s employees. She saw me, greeted me, and asked me if I have eaten. I said yes and returned the greeting and enquired if she had eaten. Because she was a child, she didn’t tactfully lie, she told me the truth. She hadn’t eaten that day. I about died when I realized she hadn’t eaten because they had no food at home and no money to buy food. I got her something to eat and bought whatever I could send home with her.

I was blessed to be born in a privileged family, but I have never taken food for granted. My mother used to tell me about her grandparents who struggled for food and brought us up with a deep appreciation for our blessings. At the age of 21, I found myself in Australia was working part-time on campus when I was in graduate school. The funding for my job ended and I ran out of savings. I knew my family in India was also going through some financial difficulties at that time and I didn’t want to burden my parents with this information. For about 4 months, I had very little money for food and would end up eating 1 banana and a cup of chamomile tea for dinner. This is an experience I have never revealed to anyone except to my husband. My parents would be beside themselves if they ever found out about it. With this background and experience, I find it so hard to just stand by and watch them throw food away like dirt. There have been times when I have brought it up as tactfully as I could to the teachers around me. The teachers always tell me that it’s a safety issue! That’s when I want to roll my eyes and give them my opinion on the issue as a food microbiologist! (I have a Master’s degree in Food Science and Technology, and my area of expertise is food safety.)

The US probably has the safest food system in the world. Yet, Americans and unbelievably paranoid about the safety of their food. There are people dying of hunger around the world and these people have the luxury to throw out perfectly good food because it “may” be dangerous. The irony is that it’s not just other parts of the world! According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, “one in eight Americans struggles to put enough food on the table” even as “40 percent of the food in the United States is never eaten”. Initially, I worried that we are currently raising a generation of Americans who have no respect for food. But as I watch the teachers and staff do nothing, I realize that these kids are not the first generation of Americans who take their food for granted.

As a Hindu, I find food waste downright sinful. A few years ago, I sat my daughter down and showed her youtube videos of starving children to make her understand why I get so upset when she wastes food. If you are reading this, please take a moment to ponder this problem. Next time, you see a child wasting food, at least comment on it so they can think about what they are actually doing. When reminded of starving people in the world, most American kids reply condescendingly that “we can mail this food to them”. Don’t let your kids get away with that retort. Make an effort to install empathy in your children for the underprivileged. Tell them to think about how much effort and resources went into putting that vegetable/fruit/glass of milk on your table. Remind them of the toil of all the farm workers and the environmental toll it’s taking on our planet to both produce and waste that food. Take a moment to count your blessings and make a commitment to do whatever you can to prevent such waste.

Thank you,

-AB

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