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Pile of food scraps (including fish tails, orange peels, and rotten produce)

Oh, What a Waste! Teaching About Food Waste

By Bob Schwalb

“Don’t waste food! There are starving children all over the world who would love to have the food you’re about to throw away.”

“Waste not, want not.”

If your childhood was like mine, you heard these two messages over and over from your parents.

I went to a parochial elementary school where our principal, Sister Mary Estelle, would dispense corporal punishment (seemingly with little remorse) if she caught any student attempting to throw away food at the end of lunch hour. Admittedly, this was a powerful deterrent to me and my classmates, but I don’t recommend it. Later in this post, I’ll offer suggestions for more humane ways of teaching our kiddos the importance of not wasting food.

Several years ago, while I was living in Chicago, I visited a public-school classroom where I was about to deliver a humane education program to a group of 6th graders. I entered the classroom just as the students were finishing their lunches. The teacher who was supervising instructed students to bring their food trays to the front of the class where, one by one, they emptied any remaining food into the trash can. I was in disbelief as I watched tray after tray filled with perfectly edible food go straight into the trash — chicken strips, mashed potatoes, fresh vegetables, apples, milk, and more. All of the food going into the trash was either partially eaten or completely untouched. There were even several trays meant for students who were absent that day that were untouched and completely full. Those too went straight into the trash. There was SO MUCH food was being wasted just in this one classroom! I wondered just how big this problem was across the city, the country, and the world.

Food Waste is a Huge Global Problem

I did some research and found that food waste is a much, much bigger problem than I imagined. Unfortunately, the 6th grade class I observed wasting food was not an outlier; instead, it was closer to the norm. Here are some statistics that illustrate the magnitude of the problem:

  • In the U.S., 108 billion pounds of food is lost or wasted every year.  (Source:  Feeding America)
  • Americans throw away roughly $218B worth of food every year. This works out to a family of four spending $1,800 per year on food they never eat.  (Source: Natural Resources Defense Council)
  • The U.S. per capita food waste has increased by approximately 50% since the 1970s.  (Source:  Science Daily)
  • In the U.S., we waste 26% of the meat that enters the retail market. This translates into hundreds of millions of animals killed each year only to be thrown away.  (Source:  Counting Animals)
  • While billions of dollars in food is being wasted, roughly 42 million Americans will experience food insecurity at some point this year – that’s approximately 1 in 8 Americans.  (Source:  Feeding America) Worse still, 9 million people worldwide die from starvation each year. (Source: United Nations)
  • Food is the biggest component of landfills in America, consuming nearly 22% of landfill space. Food in the landfill decomposes anaerobically which produces methane, a greenhouse gas that is roughly 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Every 100 pounds of food sent to the landfill will produce approximately 8.3 pounds of methane gas.  (Source:  Food Forward)
  • Food is not the only thing being wasted when we throw out food. We also waste water, soil, fertilizers, pesticides, fossil fuels, labor, and packaging, not to mention the wild habitats that are destroyed to make room for more farmland.
  • A large amount of air, water, and ground pollution is produced along the entire supply chain of food production.
  • Globally, the wasted food makes up 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions.  (Source:  The Washington Post)

Why Do We Waste So Much Food?

There are many factors contributing to the high rate of food waste:

  • Supermarket promotions (e.g., special offers, sale prices, coupons, etc.) persuade us to buy food we may not need just because it’s such a “good deal.”
  • Quality standards that rely mostly on the appearance of fruits and vegetables result in perfectly edible — but less-than-perfect-looking — crops being left to rot in the field or discarded after harvest.
  • Consumers and grocery stores often discard food products because the current date is past the food product’s stated “Sell By,” “Use By,” or “Best By” dates. With the exception of infant formula, these dates relate to best flavor or quality and often have nothing to do with food safety.
  • Household refrigerators currently average 22.5 cubic feet, up from 19.6 cubic feet in 1980. These larger units allow more food to be stored, and more food can translate into more spoilage.  (Source:  CNBC)
  • All-you-can-eat restaurant specials entice patrons to fill up their plate multiple times, regardless of hunger.
  • Supermarket shopping carts have grown 20% in the last 20 years, encouraging us to buy even more food we may not need.  (Source:  Taste of Home)

Ways to Reduce Food Waste

Each of us can take simple steps to help reduce food waste. Here are some suggestions:

  • Plan your meals by making only the amount of food you are likely to eat that meal.
  • Put the oldest items in your refrigerator on the top shelf so it will be easier to remember to use them up first. Do this in your pantry, as well, by designating a prominent shelf for older items.
  • Use wilted or soft produce in soups, sauces, or smoothies. 
  • Take inventory of your refrigerator and cupboards before grocery shopping to avoid buying unnecessary food items.
  • When eating out, ask servers to leave off food items that you know you’re not going to eat. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for a portion size that matches your hunger level.
  • If, after doing the aforementioned suggestions, you still end up with a few scraps left on your plate after a meal, consider composting those scraps instead of putting them in the trash. Keeping food out of the trash reduces the amount of methane production.

Get the Kiddos Involved

  • Let them help plan family meals, always keeping food waste reduction in mind.
  • Limit between-meals snacking.
  • Give small portions to younger kids and let them know they can always get seconds if they’re still hungry; let older kids plate for themselves keeping food waste reduction in mind.
  • Save whatever is left on their plates so they can finish leftovers later.
  • Pack lunches strategically so that portions will closely match their hunger and ensure the food that’s packed will be something they’re likely to eat.


Food waste is a massive and growing global problem that has severe consequences for humans, animals, and the environment. Teaching young people about this issue, helping them discover practical solutions, encouraging them to take meaningful individual and collective action, and setting a good example for them are all things we can do to help create a more just and sustainable world for future generations.

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