Hundreds of pre-K through sixth graders at Owl Creek School in Fayetteville sit at long white tables lunching on cheese ravioli, pizza, salad, fruit, and cartons of skim milk.
Their cafeteria is partitioned in half today. On one side, the smaller children scrape leftovers into large trash barrels. Custodian Becky Ramey says most of the food gets tossed.
“Seventy-five percent," she says. "There’s a lot of things that they do not want to eat. [Some] don’t eat at all. They throw a lot of it away.”
The other half of the cafeteria has been set up for a food waste audit to draw attention to and measure the waste.
A select group of fifth and sixth graders, members of the school's "Green Team," which guide school sustainability practices, show their classmates how to separate their lunch leftovers into five-gallon buckets marked milk, fruits, raw vegies, and cooked foods. Unopened packaged items are also collected, and set aside. Fifth grade science teacher Matt Pledger helps, praising incoming students who’ve eaten all their lunch.
“That’s a good lookin’ plate, that’s what I’m talkin’ about,” he says, grinning. “Is there any milk in that?” pointing to the carton. The student pours of the excess into the milk bucket.
University of Arkansas political science graduate student Melissa Terry designed the school food waste audit. She has been testing it in a half dozen Fayetteville schools.
“What this process does is help students to see each component on their tray,” she says. “And we capture that, literally in buckets, and then we get to use our Science, Technology, Engineering and Math skills to do some STEM-based lesson plans, weighing the buckets, recording the data, learning how to make spread sheets and bar graphs. So the students take this process on and use their skills that they’ve learned at school to evaluate what’s going on in their real world.”
Terry, a school food conservation Project Manager with World Wildlife Fund, has, along with staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency authored a free online guide for conducting student food waste audits in schools.
“So we worked on that for about a year, and it went through peer review for another year, through both federal agencies, through their legal teams," she says.
Two years ago USDA and EPA set a 50 percent national food waste reduction goal for 2030.
Terry hopes the new 16-page illustrated school food waste guide will help to reach that goal. The audits reveal to students and teachers just how much — and why — their cafeteria food is being wasted. The guide also lists strategies to reduce school waste, for instance, scheduling lunch after recess when students' appetites are piqued, even extending lunch and giving food fun names.
Science teacher Matt Pledger says the food waste audits are making a difference at Owl Creek.
“Weekly, we are decreasing our food waste, and it’s incredible to talk with the kids about how that’s helping their community, their environment and the difference they are making in this one cafeteria.”
The program teaches children that reducing food waste reduces the consumption of natural resources used to grow food, as well as the air pollution generated when food is cultivated and finally transported to stores or, in this case, their cafeteria.
A table full of Owl Creek students say the food waste project has for sure influenced their lunchroom behavior.
“I’m wasting less food, yes, 'cause I am eating all of it. The food is delicious!” exclaims one little girl.
“We can reduce food waste by eating what we take and taking what we are gonna eat,” says another student.
Portion control education is a part of the food audit program.
“I like sharing food with other people,” says another.
Rather than pitch their uneaten fruits and packaged snacks, the children are now placing uneaten whole fruits and unopened packaged items on monitored Share Tables for others to consume. To help districts sort out the health rules on food sharing, Melissa Terry has also produced a legal guide
to Share Tables co-authored the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville Food Law Center.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.