Food waste not confined to the school lunch line

Monday, September 22, 2014

From the "you can lead a horse to water" department, there's more frustration on the lunch line as schools see millions of dollars a day of food dumped into the trash because kids refuse to eat it.

Of the $12 billion a year the U.S. Department of Agriculture spends on the National School Lunch program, researchers at Cornell and Brigham Young universities estimate some $4 million in food a day is being wasted.

Our parents used to try to guilt us into eating food that might otherwise go to starving children overseas, but today's grownups paying grocery bills, school lunch fees or taxes understand what their grandpa and grandma were saying.

The situation began to get worse two years ago when new nutrition standards, touted by the first lady, were imposed on public schools.

Since then, a million students have stopped eating school lunches, and some 600 school districts have dropped out of the school lunch program as a result, according to the National School Nutrition Association.

Like many problems, however, food waste isn't just a problem with the public schools.

In 2010, according to the USDA, Americans wasted 31 percent of all food that was available, which amounted to 141 trillion calories.

Ironically, the move toward fresh fruits and vegetables can make the situation worse, as families move away from processed, preservative-laden foods.

And, of special interest to Southwest Nebraskans, wasting that food in effect wastes the water used to produce it, amounting to 24 percent of all water used for agriculture around the world, some 45 trillion gallons of water.

Innovators are finding ways to reduce food waste, including examples such as the former CEO of Trader Joes who has started a restaurant featuring food past its sell-by date, Internet-based companies and non-profits connecting surplus food with people who need it and other efforts.

It's good to see more and more of us dining on fresh fruits and vegetables -- including locally produced food sold at Saturday morning's Farmers Market, and grown at a couple of community gardens as well as private gardens.

And, food that might otherwise go to waste is finding its way into weekly community meals and to those who depend on the McCook Pantry, plus the Prairie Land Food project rewards volunteers for their service by providing nutritious food at bargain prices.

But until more of our families, including parents, learn to eat nutritious food at home, schools that try to change students' eating habits are fighting an uphill battle.

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