Our food waste problem is much larger than you think

By Isabel Hicks

On average, the U.S. wastes around 108 billion pounds of food per year. That’s 130 billion meals and 408 billion dollars, according to Feeding America.

Food that goes to the landfill is incredibly detrimental to the environment, and it is a leading contributor to climate change. When decomposing food mixes with other substances in the landfill, it releases methane and nitrous oxide, the most potent of greenhouse gasses. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency estimates that food waste produces 170 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, equivalent to the CO2 emissions of 42 power plants. These greenhouse gasses contribute to the rising temperatures of the Earth’s atmosphere, and exacerbate the global warming crisis we are currently facing.

Here at school, food waste is a major issue as well. On average, we waste around $15,000 worth of food each year, according to Food Services Manager Mike Hyde. That’s enough money to feed an entire family of five for an entire year.

Food waste is a major issue in this country, but it isn’t talked about enough, and people don’t realize the drastic consequences of it.

The school serves around $7,000 worth of food everyday, and around $100 worth of that food is wasted. That only includes the amount of food that goes unserved, and not the food that students waste on their own, making the real number much higher than the estimated amount.
Hyde is in charge of managing orders and supervising the consumption of food. Although he knows food waste is a big issue, he notes that it is difficult to organize something to reduce it just because of the sheer size of the school.

“The only problem here is the volume,” Hyde said. “There are so many kids here. It just adds up so fast.”

Hyde tries his best to reduce food waste here on campus by making conscious choices when ordering. According to state law, they are required to meet at least three of five food requirements by providing protein, grains, fruits, vegetables, and milk.

The school is able to meet almost all of them by offering various foods as optional choices. Students can opt to take an apple or a carton of milk, but it is not given to all students who order lunch. This helps reduce excess food waste, as students are only choosing the food they will consume.

It is in the school’s best interest to reduce food waste, because it saves them money. The amount of money we waste could be used to improve other areas of the school, including the equipment the food staff is able to use.

“The more money we have left over, the more staff we can hire, the more newer equipment we can buy,” Hyde said. “It’s really in our best interest to give you guys what you want, because it creates a positive feedback loop, basically.”

Although the school does waste a lot of food, Hyde noticed that the problem was much worse at other Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) schools. While working at one school, he saw how the food was thrown out immediately after it was served, because students who only wanted one item were offered the entire course.

“They would literally just have a trash can at the end of the serving line, and kids would just throw away immediately what they don’t want,” Hyde said. “It was bad.”

As students, it is important that we are conscious of our food choices and consumption.

Students who take more than they need and waste over half of it are part of the problem.

“You know, if a student takes two juices, and then only drinks one, and you multiply that out times the amount of students here, times a 180 day school year, it just adds up really fast,” Hyde said.

The school orders food based on demand and typical quotas of food consumption, but if students are taking much more than is consumed, the school will likely order more food than is necessary the next time, leading to a cycle of excess food.

There are students on campus working to reduce food waste, however. The C.A.F.E. Club organized the pink boxes around campus for students to put their extra food. Students can add the packaged snacks they don’t consume and the club picks them up at the end of the week. Around 60-70 items of food are donated every 1-2 weeks to homeless shelters and food banks. They hope to expand to other schools and implement a program in all schools across the Valley.
Like the CAFE club’s efforts to reduce food waste, there are things we can do to help at home. One simple way is to set up a compost bin for your kitchen. In fact, California passed a compost law that will require households to compost by 2024.

Composting is the most effective way to combat food waste, because it not only gets rid of food scraps sustainably, but turns those food scraps into nutrient rich soil that can be used for gardening, for the next cycle of life.

Small actions matter, and working on a local level to reduce food waste is the best way to combat climate change and restore the environment.