Waste-deep in Food

Whether they’re eaten, much of your lunch ends up in the trash.


Elizabeth Posey, Art Director

It is no secret that Americans tend to be wasteful, especially regarding food. For an issue so avoidable, many schools, including Branham, do not have environmentally conscious systems for food waste disposal.

Nationally, food makes up roughly 50 percent of all waste, or approximately one pound per person according to the Public Library of Science’s research journal. CalRecycle, the state’s program for waste management, reports that 50 percent of all school-produced waste is food.

When food is left to decompose in landfills, it releases greenhouse gases, which further contributes to global warming. This is partly because meals distributed by school cafeterias are under constant regulation that leave few options but to throw food away.

District food services director Rory McCarthy said that the Branham cafeteria produces 200 meals every day. In other words, because cafeteria patrons fluctuate, up to 200 meals could be wasted every day, a measurement McCarthy described as “not easily accumulated.”

Though the total food waste can be difficult to quantify on an organized and daily basis, cafeteria employees do their best to eliminate unnecessary food waste by planning ahead, according to Branham’s cafeteria manager Jennifer Webster. However, when purchases are low, the unfortunate and inevitable result is wasted food and a large carbon footprint. Webster does not know the reason for such large fluctuation.

“We really try not to have a lot of waste,” Webster said, but “we are going to throw away a ton of food.”

With student consumption of school meals varying heavily, as well as county health codes to adhere to, the cafeteria is under tight constraints that force them to dispose of uneaten meals.

Santa Clara County requires school cafeterias to throw heated food away instead of refrigerating it to serve again. When foods are between 41 to 135 degrees Fahrenheit, they can be considered potentially hazardous and susceptible to producing pathogenic bacteria. When heated food reaches room temperature (70 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit), the risk of contamination increases. The bacteria can reproduce at rapid rates every hour, rendering it too unsafe to eat after several hours.

With such temperatures as the markers for health risks, Branham’s heated food is destined for the landfill after being uneaten for one day. The cafeteria is able to preserve the cold food they store and serve because the possibility of bacteria multiplication is less. Still, after two days of its storage period, cold food must also be thrown away.

Though progress towards waste reduction seems stagnant, potential solutions are possible. Former AP Environmental Science teacher Kori Reynolds seems to think so, proposing composting as an alternative.

“The easiest thing to do is to compost,” she said. “Instead of the food waste that could be going to the landfills where it really just doesn’t break down, it goes into the soil.” While composting organic material raises potential questions or obstacles, it proposes a solution to a frustrating problem.

Campuses are not the only establishments fated to toss their food. Across the country, grocers, restaurants and average households are throwing away good food constantly. “It’s part of the American culture to waste a lot” said Reynolds.

Largely, aesthetic-based qualifications are set in order for food to be sold. As a result, good-looking food becomes synonymous with good quality food. This judgement is one that Reynolds described as “ridiculous” for influencing the culture of wastefulness surrounding American society. In recent years, increased awareness in the form of pollution has encouraged new organizations such as the Food Recovery Network to establish new methods to combat it.

The ultimate solution, however, to lessen the culture of waste is through education systems. Reynolds suggested that school gardens “expose students to actual agriculture, and they grow their own food. They know what it looks like when it grows, and a lot of that stigma starts to go away.”

Teaching young minds to understand the process through which food is produced gives students a better appreciation for what they are consuming, yielding a less wasteful future. When Americans discuss food waste, rather than ignoring it, new standards can be set for quality and more approaches can be made to decrease it.