Students found 131 pounds of food waste. Here's what they're doing about it.

Have you ever studied what you’re throwing in the trash? You may not have, but kids around Metro Schools’ middle schools are doing just that – and for good reason.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, almost 95 percent of the food we throw away every day – from unwanted leftovers to spoiled produce – ends up in a landfill, where it isn’t exposed to oxygen and instead releases harmful methane gasses into the atmosphere. This wasted food, an estimated 63 million tons of food per year in the US, depletes precious resources like water and energy and harms wildlife habitat.

Through an initiative with Urban Green Lab and World Wildlife Fund’s Food Waste Warriors program, some resourceful middle school students are seeking to change that burden on our landfills and find a more sustainable, environmentally friendly way to prevent and reduce that food waste. Considering one middle school counted just over 100 pounds of food waste after one single lunch day, our schools certainly have the opportunity to make a real impact. 

When Lisa Young, an ENCORE teacher at H.G. Hill Middle School, first introduced her students to the issues of food waste and the basics of composting through an Urban Green Lab Sustainable Classrooms lesson, her students were instantly compelled to act.  She then joined the Food Waste Warriors program and was trained by Urban Green Lab in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation on the curriculum and audit procedures. She identified 35 student leaders to coordinate the audit that would identify how much their school was wasting and where the waste was coming from. On the day of the project, all students left their trays at the audit station after lunch where their fellow students sorted through their food waste to find what could be diverted from landfills.

Through the audit, students found that more than 85 pounds of food waste was unopened food. Students are currently researching how to best donate unopened food, their largest category of food waste.  Students sorted and weighed other categories of food waste – and they’re ranked here:

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Students also calculated the greenhouse gases emitted as well as the water and energy used to produce the food waste from their school lunches.

The students at H.G. Hill ended up redirecting more than 131 pounds of food waste, 75 percent of all waste from the day’s lunch, from its final trip to a landfill. Instead, these students focused on sustainably disposing of one day’s food waste through composting, thanks to Compost Nashville, who donated their services to help the students complete their food waste audit.

“They felt that wasting food was an important issue and were interested in the possible change they could make in their own school by donating leftover food and composting the food waste, milk cartons and trays,” Young said. “Before this project, I think students, and a lot of adults, didn’t realize the negative impact of wasted food.”

H.G. Hill Middle School is one of three Metro Schools working on this project, along with Westmeade Elementary and Warner Elementary. Collectively, all three schools have composted more than 800 pounds of food waste so far, with 13 more audits remaining. Additional grants have been submitted to hopefully implement composting service at all three schools through the spring as a pilot program.

“Urban Green Lab is thrilled to bring the Food Waste Warriors program to Nashville and help students to better understand the extent of food waste in schools and how it affects the planet. It is exciting to see the teachers and students at each of these schools leading the way in food waste reduction and sustainability in Metro Schools,” said Diana Andrew at Urban Green Lab.

“Turning these cafeterias in Nashville into classrooms helps the students to immediately see and understand the impact of what they throw away, empowering them to make changes and to be tomorrow’s leaders on food waste reduction,” said Pete Pearson, WWF’s Director of Food Waste.

The Food Waste Warriors program is made possible through funding from The Kroger Co. Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).