Childhood Obesity

Reducing Food Waste in Schools (and tips you can use at home)

Hi, my name is Alex Larson, and I have been a MN GreenCorps Member with CentraCare in St. Cloud for almost two years. During my time here, I have been working with the St. Cloud Area School District (ISD 742), Sartell-St. Stephen School District, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central MN (BGC) to look at and, hopefully, reduce wasted food and increase consumption of healthy foods in their cafeterias. Our first step was to track how much food was being wasted, so a small team headed out to every school in ISD 742, Sartell, and BGC. To track the amount of waste, we took pictures of as many trays as we could, to get a fair and accurate slice of data to work with. We visited every school and site once during the 2017-2018 school year, then came the second step: Sorting through the thousands and thousands of pictures to determine the amount of waste on each tray.

There are several different ways to look at how much food was wasted, but I opted for a combination of the photograph and Decima Waste methods. That is, taking pictures and judging waste based on how many tenths of a full portion is left uneaten. There were approximately 10,000 students in ISD 742 from Fall 2017 to Spring 2018. We took and assessed approximately 6,136 tray pictures of wasted food. From that data, we have produced reports with recommendations and data for each school and site to help them improve the amount of food that is taken and eaten.

Before the end of the 2018-2019 school year, ISD 742 began the journey of standardizing the waste disposal systems in their cafeterias and kitchens. The main goal was to purchase and educate about Waste Sorting Tables. Waste Sorting Tables are stainless steel tables on wheels, with holes in the top, and are meant to be placed over waste bins. The tables will use colors and signage to teach students how to dispose of certain items (for example, a milk carton would go in the blue recycling hole).

To purchase the Waste Sorting Tables, ISD 742 applied for and was awarded SCORE grants from Benton, Sherburne, and Stearns counties. Education, some staff time, signs, and other resources to support proper waste disposal were also included in the grants and have been used and are in development for the 2019-2020 school year and beyond.

ISD 742, Sartell, and BGC have taken great strides towards reducing waste output, improving their climate impact, and increasing the amount of good food that students take and eat. Here are some practical measures they use that you can do at home!

  • Plan menus for the week – A great way to reduce the amount of waste or leftovers you will be left with. This works especially well when purchasing perishable items like fruits and veggies.
  • Buy in bulk – This is a simple, affordable, and easy way to save costs. (Especially if you eat a lot of dried goods, like rice or pasta.)
  • Don’t overstock your cupboards – Canned and frozen foods can go bad too, so use up most of what you have and rotate the older goods to the front when you do restock. (Don’t worry Frozen Peas, that haven’t seen the light of day since 2010, you’ll be used someday.)
  • Be adventurous sometimes – ‘Variety is the spice of life,’ so have a little fun with the recipes you try. Just make sure it’s something you don’t mind eating for a meal or two, so nothing goes to waste.
  • Include Vegetables and Fruits – Yes, fruits are delicious and now in season for summer, but the recommendation is four servings of fruit and five servings of vegetables.
  • Eat the Rainbow – No, I’m not talking about Skittles. Although delicious and fruity, they are not actually made with fruit. Rather, a variety of vegetables and fruits. From artichokes to zucchini and apples to watermelon, there are so many to enjoy and try! Find your new favorites today!
  • Avoid processed foods – The modern world is full of refined, salted, sugar-coated, modified, high-fructose corn syrup and other delicacies of post-World War America, but try to limit the amount of processing. The fewer ingredients the better.
  • Less is more – It’s alright to really indulge a few times a year, and to a lesser degree a few times a month, but a little can go a long way. Dessert a couple times a week is alright, but don’t desert moderation too often (three or four Oreos, not a whole pack in one night). Regularly repeated indulgences do bad habits make.
  • Eat the recommended portion size – Most portions are recommended for a 2,000 kilocalorie (Calorie) diet, which is a good way to maintain a healthy physique if you are moderately active and don’t indulge yourself too often.
  • Use common sense – You know what you need, and if you don’t you will seek advice to make more informed decisions.

Just try to limit the amount of ingredients that a three-year-old can’t pronounce intuitively (I’m looking at you Azodicarbonamide), and if you would like a further adage here’s Michael Pollan’s: Eat food, mostly plants, not too much. It’s been a pleasure to work with Feeling Good MN and St. Cloud area schools and partners, and I look forward to seeing continued steps and progress as I move on to a different occupation sometime in the near future.

Stay Green and Healthy, my friends!