So, as I wrote in last week’s “I’m Going Hungry,” I had a brief moment where I couldn’t get groceries. Freaked out, I struggled to focus on anything but securing food. And that got me thinking about our school children who go hungry each day.
I know, tough life. The guy who has always had some money in his pocket and has never had to worry about where his next meal was coming from or how he would pay for it couldn’t order his Whole Foods delivery because there were not any available delivery times due to increased COVID-19 demand.
I acknowledge my privilege – I have plenty of it – but that’s not the point. Instead, the real issues are what are we doing to provide our children with food in school and are we doing it in the most effective ways possible?
Full disclosure: I think school breakfast and school lunch programs that guarantee every student a meal even if they do not take it and it goes in the garbage are inherently wasteful. Still, I understand why programs like New York City’s 2018 Free School Lunch for All program are crucial. No child should experience hunger, especially not 20% of them.
Systems like this are not perfect. Namely, the amount of food that is wasted is staggering: across the country, schools are wasting roughly $5 million total per day, which is $1.2 billion – BILLION – dollars per year.
Going beyond schools, the problem is a national one. According to a December 2019 Education Dive article that cited the Natural Resources Defense Counsel, “About 40% of food made in the U.S. is wasted, resulting in a loss of $160 billion per year.”
That’s the kind of waste where you just shake your head and feel hopeless. How does throwing away food benefit anyone – the hungry or the taxpayers? How can we help so many, yet waste so much? And that’s just from a food-availability standpoint. I’m not even going to get into the environmental impact of all this.
No, I will accentuate some positives. And, like any change, it starts with education.
In Oakland, Nancy Deming is making an impact. Deming is the Oakland school district’s sustainability manager for custodial and nutritional services, Deming is proactively trying to reduce waste through a variety of measures:
- Designated share areas for unwanted food that students can leave for others to consume.
- Teaching students how to use it properly and remaining consistent with the practice.
- Allowing students to take unfinished fruit and vegetable packets back with them to class.
- Posting reminders about milk cartons to only take if you want it.
- Pushing for staff to clean up items to prepare them for donation or redistribution.
- Donating excess food to local pantries and homeless shelters.
- Teaching into being less wasteful as well as how to dispose of our waste properly.
These all seem like simple steps. Yet, for a number of reasons, they do not gain traction in many school districts for a number of reasons. Namely, poor food quality, USDA guidelines that force students to take certain types of food they might not like, and the extra work on both the teaching and operational side to ensure waste is reduced.
Thankfully, at the school where I teach, we do rotate a share bin around the cafeteria during breakfast and lunch. Students do regularly take food from this bin. We do teach to and enforce (somewhat) proper composting and recycling practices. And we do donate excess food to our local food pantry.
New York State is trying to do its part by requiring large food vendors – sports venues, supermarkets, hotels and colleges – to donate their leftover edible food in 2022. Furthermore, “the remaining scraps will need to be prepared as animal feed or compost if a recycling facility is within 25 miles.”
Unfortunately, most “food generators” are exempt from this provision as they are over 25 miles away from a recycling facility. Still, some expect that “the language in the recently adopted state budget will inspire businesses to open organic recycling facilities in the next two-and-a-half years.”
It’s a start. We’ll see if the follow through actually happens or if it turns into the NYC plastic bag. That has more exceptions than it does rules. As I always tell the kids, when there are exceptions, there really are no rules.
There exists a silver lining to indefinite lockdown: the perspective you gain on so many facets of life you took for granted, like food availability. Gone are the days of wandering around the supermarket, picking through items you might not even need. So too are the days of being able to get everything you need, never once considering shortages or price-gouging.
It took me not being able to get bread, milk, cheese, Starbucks iced coffee, and veggies from an online grocer to realize. This is a real struggle too many experience each day, not just during a pandemic.
My hope is we learn to live with less – still working on that – and we maximize what we have. That we start to teach our kids why reducing our waste is important – not just to reduce hunger, but also to help our environment. My hope is that this experience humbles us to donate more of our food and our time to help those experiencing hunger.
Still, I can’t help to dispel a troubling thought. Whenever this pandemic passes, people will return to their daily lives and forget what it felt like not to be able to get whatever you want at the grocery store. They will forget even what it felt like to be a little hungrier or a little less satisfied than normal.
To learn more about City Harvest.
To learn more about New York Cares.