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Fifth graders at four New Jersey elementary schools will learn how food waste contributes to climate change – and what they can do about it – thanks to $335,263 that the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Food Waste Team has received from a state grant to develop its “New Jersey Leaves No Bite Behind” curriculum.

Those schools will also receive a $10,000 subaward after teachers and students develop a plan to support food waste reduction efforts, said Dr. Sara Elnakib, chair of the Department of Family and Community Health Sciences, who serves as principal investigator of the project. Students that participate in the evaluation phase of the program will receive a $25 gift card, she added.

The grant from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Recycling Enhancement Act will support the creation of interdisciplinary, experiential programs focused on sustainable food habits while supporting schools in meeting new learning standards adopted in June 2020 that made New Jersey the first state to incorporate K-12 climate change education across content areas.

The Rutgers team has been working with schools to reduce food waste since 2017, conducting food audits to demonstrate how much food is being wasted. The team also trains schools on how to set up “share tables” to feed hungry students or to donate unused food, provides information on composting, and trains health inspectors.

Two of the schools that the Rutgers team opts to work with on the project will receive an immediate intervention starting with the 2022-2023 school year; the remaining two schools will be “control schools” that the food waste team will measure its progress against, according to Elnakib. They’ll be equipped to develop a food waste reduction program the following school year, in 2023-2024.

Two of the schools will be from Paterson, where the food waste team has been working since 2017, and two in Ocean County. Each district will include one control school and one school that will receive an immediate intervention, Elnakib said.

“We will measure food waste in all four schools and implement training that is needed in two schools – and then we will measure food waste again in all four schools. That will allow us to see any differences and offer a training program for the other two control schools,” Elnakib said. The control schools will benefit from “a delayed intervention,” she said.

In addition to helping curb global warming and helping those in need, reducing food waste has another big benefit for schools as well: It can save them money. “Our first intervention in Paterson saved the school district an estimated $76,452 in food costs each year for the estimated 90,720 pounds of food waste saved districtwide,” Elnakib said. “We anticipate the schools participating in this program will benefit from the same cost-savings.”

Paterson Public Schools, which has been focusing on reducing food waste since 2017, wrote a letter of endorsement when the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Food Waste team applied for the grant. While the team has already identified which school in Paterson it plans to stage an immediate intervention at, the control school is still being identified, Elnakib said.

“Since we have worked there so long, we need to be careful about not tapping the same school, Elnakib said. “We want to be sure there is real impact because of this program and not programming we have previously done. So, we are identifying which schools we have not been in already.”

As for Ocean County, the team decided to work with a school there – yet to be identified – as it has a hypothesis that residents of areas more susceptible to the impacts of climate change, including the Jersey Shore, would already know more about it than other students. “We wanted to test this hypothesis by looking at Ocean County schools,” Elnakib said, noting it will be interesting to contrast schools there with urban schools in Paterson.

Food Waste and Global Warming

About 30% to 40% of the food supply in the United States is thrown away as food waste, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Moreover, food waste is the single largest contributor to municipal landfills. About 133 billion pounds of food is wasted each year, the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Food Waste Team notes on its website.

“When food goes to landfills, it emits a powerful greenhouse gas called methane, which is harmful to our environment and has doubled in concentration over the last two centuries,” its website states. “Methane traps heat in the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. Because methane is short lived, reducing methane emissions should be prioritized as it would have a significant impact on atmospheric warming potential.”

Elnakib explains, “Our food waste methodology is focused on the Environmental Protection Agency hierarchy that says you want to reduce food waste at the source – and if you can’t do that, you want to feed hungry people, then feed animals, then use unused food for industrial uses and finally for composting.” All those things are better than allowing food to get to a landfill, she said.

One of the reasons the food waste team was so excited to receive the grant for No Bite Left Behind is that research shows that elementary school students tend to be enthusiastic about helping the environment. “But it is sometimes hard to find actionable ways to effect change … maybe reducing food waste can be one of the things they can do to help support an improved climate,” Elnakib said. She added, “Using this as a gateway to teach about climate change can be very empowering.”

For instance, students learn that something as simple as not wasting food or donating food can have an impact on climate change. “That is why we chose to look at food as a vehicle for some of this,” she said.

More Details

Jeanine Cava, a family and community health sciences research project assistant with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Food Waste Team, said the grant will allow the team to develop six lessons that teachers can incorporate into their curriculum.

While the team will go into classrooms and do hands-on activities with students, each lesson will include a video component so that they can be conducted with or without the team’s help. The videos will eventually be available online, with the idea being that any teacher could incorporate them into their curriculum.

The first video in the series will introduce the concept of climate change and tie in to learning standards. Other videos will include an introduction to the food system and food waste, the environmental impact of food waste, composting, and how to be a climate change hero by eating leftovers and ugly fruits and vegetables – “not just tossing things out because they don’t look perfect,” Cava said.

“A teacher may see our lesson and just want to use the video, or a video game or a breakout session and use that in their course, tying it into a curricular standard, so it is not a heavy lift for them,” Elnakib said.

The team wants to create an advisory board of students and teachers to review their work before launching it, she added.

Having worked with Sustainable Jersey in the past, the team plans to share its lessons with its network along with posting them on its own website as a way to support reducing food waste and promoting climate change education, Elnakib said.

One of the most critical components of the program will be food waste audits at the participating schools, something the team has overseen at other schools.

“We try to do food waste audits in October, weighing the foods remaining to assess student consumption and waste,” Elnakib said. “And we hope to start our curriculum in January.”

Undergraduate students will conduct the food waste audits at the participating schools. “We train undergraduate students beforehand … we make them measure food waste in front of us and make sure everyone is measuring the same way, so we can trust that when they are in the field, they are doing it correctly,” Elnakib said.

The audit consists of all the food that students dump off their trays after meals, Elnakib said. “Instead of dropping their tray in a trash, they drop it off to a destination station,” she said. Any leftover food – even milk – is measured, she said. “That way, we can get really specific data,” she said.

For instance, schools can learn how many apples are being thrown out as opposed to oranges, which can help them make better menu choices and support the recommended intervention.

The audits only encompass edible food. For instance, orange peels are not included. “We talk specifically about the unopened or unconsumed food and how to support donations, food sharing and other methods to reduce food waste,” Elnakib said.

In addition to the food audits and actual instruction, the grant for New Jersey Leaves No Bite behind will support a summit that will provide an opportunity for students, educators and administrators to learn more about furthering food waste reduction and how it ties in with climate change, Elnakib said.

What Schools Can Do Now

You don’t have to be one of the No Bite Left Behind schools to make reducing food waste a priority – or to explain how it intersects with climate change in the classroom.

One tactic that the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Food Waste Team advocates is the implementation of share tables in school cafeterias, which can reduce food waste while also easing food insecurity. According to its website, share tables are a U.S. Department of Agriculture-supported technique where a space is designated in the school cafeteria for students to place their unopened, unwanted food.

This allows unwanted food to be collected and redistributed rather than being thrown out. Food on a share table can also be repurposed within the school for after-school activities or can be sent home with students who have been identified as needing more food.

The Rutgers team offers training on how to set up a successful share table with appropriate safety measures along with other programs to help reduce food waste.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity – while at the same time dissuading some schools from setting up share tables, Elnakib said. “People are still more cautious,” she said. “They are willing to donate food but don’t want to give it directly to students. But sending it to a food pantry is still better than throwing it out.”

Sometimes, schools worry about health inspectors and whether such a table is allowed. “They are sometimes concerned whether it is legal to give away food paid for by USDA money – and it is legal,” she said. That is part of our training – to show them what is allowed, and from the food safety perspective, what is acceptable.”

Food facilities that donate food are protected from liability by the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Act, according to the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Food Waste Team website. The organization has partnered with Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic to create legal fact sheets for New Jersey food donations.

Additional Resources

You can find additional resources about reducing food waste and climate change online. Here are some of them: