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,


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The slow and agonizing death of Common Sense

Did you know that Common Sense officially died two years ago? It’s true, they even published an obituary in the London Times. Although, I am not cynical enough to believe it to be dead, I do think it is on the critically endangered list. Common sense is fast becoming vestigial in the human species. Evolutionary pressures that made common sense an advantage have been lost with the advancement of science and technology. But I do believe its not fully gone. I think it survives in small pockets of society.

We go to school when we are young and learn that all things are not as we thought. We learn from history that humans as a species slowly learned that all that they believed is not true. No, the Sun does not revolve around the Earth. No, the Earth is most definitely not flat. Infectious diseases are not caused by noxious gases. You will not catch a cold if you go out in the cold. Ulcers are not caused by stress (check out Helicobacter pylori). Spontaneous generation is not a thing. Blood letting does not cure diseases. You cannot turn base metals into gold through alchemy. These were inherently held beliefs that were shown to be absolutely wrong. Some of them were probably believed to be common sense. Mark Twain even remarked, “Common sense is the sum total of all prejudices acquired by the age of 16.” I do not completely agree with Mark Twain. Many old-time beliefs that been proved otherwise start with a grain of truth. It maybe an occurrence that is later proved to be just a correlation and not a cause. But, the fact remains that many such beliefs arise from some ‘common’ observation or ‘common’ truth. A lot of times we forget this, even as we start to believe that all ‘old’ ideas are nonsense, irrelevant and not based in truth or science. For example, studies show that people do catch more colds in winter. There is some science behind that belief after all.

I have observed that after we go through schooling and college, we start to learn from experiencing instead of books.  Due to this many of us in middle-age rediscover the value of ‘good old common sense’. We realize that some of the things that people have believed for centuries does not necessarily have a basis in ignorance or prejudice. People might not have been able to explain the science behind some beliefs in the past, but there was science behind them all the same. At times science confirms some things considered to be common sense. Here is another example: In India, traditional mourning following a death lasts between 10-13 days. During this period, the family members of the deceased are not allowed to go to temples. On the outset, this sounds like a ridiculous superstition. What does someone dying have to do with a family member going to the temple? Now, cast your mind back to the past when this rule originated. It is likely that most of the deaths that were caused during those ancient times were from infectious diseases. If someone in your family died of an infectious disease, it is likely that you are either dying from it or a carrier to it. Temples are places where large numbers of people used to gather every day. It is therefore, common sense to know that if you were to visit a temple during the mourning period (which coincides nicely with the incubation/contagious periods of many diseases), you can start an epidemic! Now it doesn’t sound so ridiculous after all.

What I mean by the death of common sense, is the tendency of people to dismiss older beliefs as ignorance, prejudice or just old-fashioned without thinking about it critically. Experience is a good teacher. It is likely that if people have believed something for a long time, there was a good reason for it. This is the background in which I saw this article about people creating artwork with menstrual blood. A lot of young women today think that the taboo against menstruation and menstrual blood is just a product of patriarchy. I disagree. I think it has to do with some common sense about hygiene. Menstrual blood is shunned because it is body fluid that is considered to be a waste product by the body and eliminated as such.  Nobody (unless you were a toddler) would think its cool to make art with your poop or your boogers! but, art with menstrual blood supposedly wipes away the stigma of period blood! What stigma is this? you mean the same stigma that is rightly attached to human urine and feaces?  Saliva, non-menstrual blood, seminal fluid, mucus and even perspiration is considered disgusting due to personal hygiene reasons.  The knee-jerk reaction of disgust to this art with menstrual blood is because of the evolutionary human reaction to all body fluids (waste or otherwise). I cannot think of any body fluid that is revered, can you?  No, like all other body fluids, menstrual blood is also simply a bio-hazard once it is out of the body.

And while I am not the subject I would like to add another two cents on a couple of other Indian customs, specifically with regard to menstruation. Women in ancient India were not allowed to visit the temple during menstruation and were physically isolated during their period. Women in ancient times didn’t have tampons or pads or menstrual cups. It would have been very messy and unhygienic to go to a temple (again a place of large public gathering) while one was actively menstruating. That is why women were not allowed into temples at that time. In those days, all housework was done by women without the help of any electronic doodads like washing machines and dish washers. The reason menstruating women were isolated during their period was to give them a break during a time when they are weaker due to blood loss. Don’t you wish you could just chill all by yourself when you are on your period? I do not think that these customs were patriarchal ploys to subjugate women  (I do not rule out that they were maybe later made into tools of power by men as the real meaning behind them were forgotten). However, I do not think that was the original intention.

When you really think about it, I think it smacks of common sense. Don’t let poor old common sense die a slow and agonizing death at the hands of some twisted view of political correctness. Let’s learn, educate, and revive it instead.