Stories of research, nutrition, and nature

Plate Wasting

My first field trip was last Wednesday to a local elementary school, where we went to measure plate waste after school lunch. We waited in the area where kids usually come to leave their trays, intercepted them and marked down the amount of leftover food/liquid for each item on a tray (none, 1/4, half, 3/4, all). This method of measuring plate waste is called visual estimation, and it’s been shown to correlate closely with waste measured by weighing. It’s also much quicker, more convenient, and so easy that even I could do it.

It was sad to see such an awful amount of food going to waste. I didn’t really mourn that much about things that weren’t proper food such as chocolate milk, rainbow-colored sugary yogurt, or hamburger buns, but I hated throwing away apples that were left untouched, dumping vegetables into the bin, or pouring away unflavored milk. The small comfort is that most of the things went into the compost bin – at least they will be recycled somehow.

Lunch was quite different from what I recall in my hazy memories about elementary school: here, almost everything was pre-packaged and there was no water, just juice and milk. In my school, we had a lunch lady who served us food on our plates, and we could regulate the amount of serving by saying “just a little” or “a lot”, depending on how hungry we were that day. Of course, that’s probably something that varies from school to school both here and in Finland.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been around so many kids at the same time. They were pretty cute (although noisy) and most of them looked healthy and normal-weight. Some of them seemed quite smart and inquisitive, too. One girl was especially interested in what we were doing. She told us that she had eaten everything on her tray, and said that her mother instructs her to only take what she can eat. She also had critical comments about high sugar content in food and unnecessary wasting by throwing away unopened cartons.

There was also some gender-questioning, since my male workmate had a ponytail. We had to answer tricky questions such as “If you’re a girl, why do you have short hair, and if he’s a boy, why does he have long hair?” and “Are you both girls?” I hope we managed to challenge some of the stereotypies they’ve already developed.

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