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Student carrying a bucket of food waste from school lunches at the Franklin Elementary Food Waste event

Pilot Program in Washington State Trains Kids to Be Food Waste Scientists

Food waste, greenhouse gas reduction

Food waste is a major contributor to climate change, both in wasted energy and in greenhouse gas emissions when this organic matter ends up in landfills.

A “Shrink Food Waste” pilot program has developed curriculum to help children reduce food waste in their communities, and other local initiatives are sending oversupplies of food from farms directly to food banks and households. They are also finding ways to reduce food waste at food banks.

In Port Angeles, Washington, in 2017, a group of students and parent volunteers at Franklin Elementary School came together after class one day to take on a unique project. They carefully sifted through dozens of pounds of the school’s garbage in an effort to understand how much food was wasted in a single day. They found sealed applesauce cups, unopened cartons of milk and whole apples among many other still edible foods that were destined for the landfill. In total, the still edible produce weighed in at 39.1 pounds.

Food waste like this is not unique to Clallam County. Across North America, 168 million tons of food are lost or wasted every year — negating the labor, money and resources that went into producing the food in the first place. But the true impact extends far beyond economics — and depends in part on what happens to the waste.

When food waste is composted, it turns into nutrient-rich soil that locks some of the organic carbon from the food into the ground. However, when food waste ends up in a landfill, where it is deprived of oxygen, this carbon is converted and released into the atmosphere as methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Many people are not aware of this environmental impact, and also might assume that restaurants or grocery stores are mostly responsible for food waste. However, evidence shows that individual households collectively are the biggest contributor.

In 2017, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) published an in-depth report analyzing current food waste management strategies in North America and identifying areas for improvement. The report identified education as a priority, and in subsequent years, the CEC worked on developing and launching the Shrink Food Waste curriculum for children. The program is now being piloted in sites in Canada, Mexico and the U.S., including the Olympic Peninsula that includes Clallam County, which was selected as a pilot site because of its reputation for implementing food waste reduction strategies.

“The curriculum is very research based and it includes a lot of fun activities,” says Melanie Greer, a 4-H program coordinator for Washington State University (WSU) Clallam County Extension, who has been helping to implement the Shrink Food Waste program locally. The activity kit, which is accompanied by several educational videos, encourages children to be “food waste scientists” by completing food waste audits in their own kitchens, setting waste reduction goals, and conducting additional audits to see the impact. Other components of the program encourage participants to grow their own food to understand the time, work and resources involved, as well as to come up with creative ways to turn unwanted food into delicious treats.

Importantly, Greer notes that the curriculum begins on a small scale, but aims to inspire more widespread action. “It is teaching kids to understand what the problem is, to figure out ways they can improve it in their own lives, and then how they can share it with their friends and their larger communities to start making wider changes,” she explains, noting that the activity kit and accompanying videos are freely available online for anyone to use.

“[The program] is teaching kids to understand what the problem is, to figure out ways they can improve it in their own lives, and then how they can share it with their friends and their larger communities to start making wider changes.”

With the Shrink Food Waste pilot officially underway, Clallam County is moving forward with a number of other local food waste initiatives. The county and the local WSU extension office have a long-standing partnership to implement projects related to food waste, equity and access in the county. One example is the launch of a gleaning program, whereby farms and local growers with abundant harvests announce when they have an oversupply of food, and volunteers come to pick the extra produce and deliver it to communities and households.

“Since we started our gleaning program [six years ago], we’ve seen a threefold increase in the amount of food that food banks are directly purchasing from local farms,” says Clea Rome, director of WSU Extension. “Through our work, we’ve seen food bank boards have a growing awareness of what it means to provide fresh, locally grown, nutritious food to their clients and start investing in that. It has been a win-win for everyone.”

Buying local produce also means fewer greenhouse gas emissions from the transport of goods. Rome says it can be difficult to develop a tracking system to monitor food quantities, but her team estimates that the program results in at least 20,000 to 30,000 pounds of gleaned produce each year, with some years yielding as much as 50,000 pounds of produce.

The county and WSU Extension have also been working to reduce waste at food banks, some of which receive extremely large donations of food that are difficult to manage. For example, a food bank may receive an entire pallet of bananas that will last only a few days before spoiling. Their solution is to help the food bank expand to a new property that will host a community kitchen. In this way, hot meals made with fresh produce can be enjoyed by community members, while extra food can be turned into meals with a longer shelf life or that can be frozen, such as banana bread.

Meggan Uecker is a utility program manager at Clallam County Public Works, and she has been working closely with Rome on many of these projects. She recently published her department’s latest Solid Waste Management Plan. “We set a lofty goal to reduce our organic waste from 20% to 10% of our waste stream by the year 2025,” she says.

Initiatives such as the new community kitchen and Shrink Food Waste programs will be critical for reaching this goal, which in turn will help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions. “I see food waste as a low-hanging fruit that has got a lot of potential for addressing climate change,” says Uecker. “That’s why I like working on those projects — it’s part of my vision for a more sustainable future.”

Story by Michelle Hampson (July 2021)

Image: Student carrying bucket of food waste from school lunches at Franklin Elementary Food Waste event. | Credit: Amy McIntyre.

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