Let’s Talk About Food Waste

Let’s talk about food waste. You know, the 1.3 billion tons of landfill garbage that accumulates each year worldwide, and a quarter of the waste that US schools produce. Food waste also represents the vast inefficiencies in food transport, grocery store marketing of “ugly” produce, accuracies in expiration and sell-by dates, the amount of time students have to eat school meals, and the disposable, consumer culture we abide in. Wasting food is a mindless part of our meal prep and eating routine. Whatever is left, we toss. Whatever is inconvenient to keep, we toss. Whatever seems unfamiliar or not our favorite to eat, we toss. In the moment that the food hits the trash can, we might not be thinking about the implications. We might not be considering the thousands of miles that the food traveled to get to our plates, or the water, soil and nutrients used to grow that food, or the time, money and energy it took to purchase and prepare that food, or the many people we cross paths with each day that are struggling to keep their refrigerators and pantries stocked. Out of sight, out of mind.

High school seniors in English class learn about food waste and food recovery before they start cooking.

But not for Mr. Yates’ senior English class at Agee-Lierly Life Preparation Services (ALLPS), an alternative high school in Fayetteville, Arkansas. In his class, students are learning about real issues, and they are trying to come up with real solutions, too. During a unit about food security, a conversation about food waste continued to bubble up among the students. Many of these teenagers work in the food industry, and they see first-hand the amount of food that is thrown away- even when it is still good to eat. They could not believe the amount of waste a single business could produce, nor the fact that they were never allowed to “save” any of this food from getting thrown away by taking it home – even if they were hungry.

Eric Yates, the teacher of this inspiring group, shared, “I think that many of our students may be more keenly aware of food waste, because many of them come from households that are food insecure. That’s one thing I’ve seen being a teacher here – no food is ever wasted. Students are sharing food all the time; they finish a friend’s breakfast before they ever get a chance to throw it away.” Knowing what they knew, these students were tasked with trying to come up with a solution.

To begin, the class was given two imaginary acres of land, and they were to decide what they would do with it. One senior, Ashlynn, had lots of ideas. She thought she’d grow an urban farm, one that would be fun for people to come to. On her farm, there would be lots of events and activities for people to attend, so that eating healthy foods was normal and fun. There would be music festivals, cooking classes, and work on the farm. Other classmates touted similar ideas. Some thought that they could begin volunteering at places around town that are trying to work on some of these issues. One student said, “I would probably like to volunteer at Tri Cycle Farms in Fayetteville, because they do a lot of work to grow food here, and they teach a lot of people about healthy foods.”

Enter Jenni Vaughan. She’s the FoodCorps Service Member at ALLPS. She’s only been there since September, but already she has helped jumpstart many initiatives at the high school. She worked with the district’s Child Nutrition Director, Ally Mrachek to bring the salad bar back into the cafeteria and to serve greens from the garden. Ally and Jenni also worked together to make yogurt parfaits available for breakfast, in addition to all of the other healthy food options and local foods that are already served by Fayetteville Public Schools. Students were included in marketing and promotion of these new foods, and Jenni is helping healthy foods to be even more exciting at ALLPS. She has helped expand the garden and worked with different classes to own projects, like menu planning, grocery budgeting, and even researching the benefits of having an earth oven on campus. She hosts family cooking events through The Kids Cook Monday grant, and integrates gardening, nutrition, and food into other core classes the students have, like Zoology, English, Algebra, and Botany.

Jenni Vaughan, FoodCorps Service Member, with 131 pounds of recovered food from Whole Foods.

Jenni knew about a food recovery program that Tri Cycle Farms had been working on in collaboration with Ozark Natural Foods (the local cooperative grocery store). They weekly pick up foods that the grocery store would be throwing out (think bruised apples, brown bananas, and molding onions). They originally wanted to take this organic food to add to their compost piles to amend the soil on their large urban garden. What they found was that much of the food that they got from the grocery store was still good enough to eat! Seeing this, they began setting foods aside that were still edible before tossing the contents of the buckets into the compost pile. This program continued to grow, and food from these recovery days would go in all different directions. AmeriCorps members that get paid a small living stipend, college students, and others come to volunteer, and take home bags of this still-good food to eat. On days of plenty, they will fill up extra bags to take to families in need, homeless shelters, or retirement centers.

The Tri Cycle Farms and Ozark Natural Foods partnership was so successful, and many were benefitting from this food recovery initiative. Don Bennett (the person at the helm of Tri Cycle Farms’ great work) and some of his AmeriCorps members began to brainstorm how to expand this program. Throughout a year of conversations and planning with the new Whole Foods grocery store in Fayetteville, they came up with a plan to pick up food three times each week. Not just produce, either. It’s mostly packages with expiration dates that have passed or are nearing, dented cans, or items that are phasing out. Even things like milk, cheese, and other high-quality proteins! These are all foods that would have just been tossed to the dumpster, but now when employees at Whole Foods sweep the shelves for items to remove, they put them in boxes in their refrigerators for their Tri Cycle friends to pick up rather than dumping the perfectly useable food items into the trash. Many of the items the team picks us is not even close to its expiration date. So far, Tri Cycle has picked up an average of more than 1,500 pounds of food from there each week. (See Tri Cycle Farms’ blog post about their food recovery project here!)

The program is still budding, and Tri Cycle is still figuring out how to distribute all of its bounty. But, partnerships abound! 7 Hills (a homeless shelter), Salvation Army (they feed many people with their free meals) and Dwelling Place (this church has a “Hope for the Hungry” program) all receive and process this recovered food. Tri Cycle also partners with the non-profit Seeds that Feed each week, who then distributes to their 50 partners through their “CareCropping” program. The Tri Cycle team is so pleased to be able provide this ongoing source of high-quality foods to these organizations. But, their ideas haven’t stopped rolling. One thing they know for sure is the power of education with healthy foods. When people have experiences learning about, preparing, and trying new foods, they are much more likely to eat and accept the foods than they would be if they had never experienced that food before. When a partnership with FoodCorps in Northwest Arkansas was introduced, Tri Cycle Farms was excited to see what this might look like.

On a cold Wednesday morning, Jenni Vaughan went to Whole Foods with the Tri Cycle crew to pick up the treasures that had been left for them. Jenni did a little “shopping” through all of the recovered food, and left with three heaping boxes of foods that she would take to ALLPS, totalling 131 pounds. Through some creative menu planning, Jenni designed her lesson for the next day with students from Mr. Yates’ English class. During their quest to find some solutions to the glaring issue of food insecurity and the problem of food waste, the class and Mr. Yates had decided they wanted to prepare a meal out of only food that was going to be thrown out (recovered food, as we’ve been calling it).

English student with mushrooms for pizza, “chopping it like its hot.”

The next day, the students came in to the FoodCorps classroom, donning Arkansas Farm to School and FoodCorps Sprouts Scouts aprons, looking hesitantly at the piles of “healthy foods” on the tables. The menu for the day that the class would be preparing was: beet hummus with pita chips and summer squash, mushroom and arugula pizza, and a pineapple-banana frozen whip. The best part? The herbs and arugula came from the school’s garden, and all the rest of the food was recovered from the grocery store (minus the cheese that topped the pizza).

While the initial opinions were that “mushrooms make me gag” and “that beet hummus looks nasty,” the time spent chopping, mixing, arranging, and cooking the foods slowly began to open minds of these teenagers. As they began to smell and taste the “fruits of their labor,” quotes of “hey, this isn’t that bad” and “I could probably make this at home” began to ring out. They were proud of their work, and pretty amazed that they could create such a masterpiece out of “trash.” Even the school principal, Dr. Hoy, was drawn in by the smells and gratefully took a plate offered her by the students. The class got to take home foods that were left after meal prep, and the remaining food hit the shelves of the school’s food pantry for students, families, and community members.

Students try beet hummus with pita chips, all made from food that was to be thrown away at the grocery store.
One high school student dons an “Arkansas Farm to School” apron as he crumbles dried basil from the school garden and chops mushrooms

After observing this event, I think it’s safe to say these students were inspired and encouraged to both be more conscious of foods that are getting thrown away and to try new healthy foods. Jenni has already returned for another food recovery day, and has many plans up her sleeve as to how she might use this food for educational programming, and to send home with students that need it. Feeding two birds with one scone, as one might say.

ALLPS Principal, Dr. Hoy, tastes the students’ creations. (She gave rave reviews!)