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L.A. Students Trash $100,000 Worth of Food Daily

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One school is challenging the current model of school lunch. Watch the five-minute California Matters episode about it here.

Waste in the American government is an inevitable thing. It's the side effect of having a system that alternates between purely capitalistic principles and government subsidized programs -- depending on which party's in power, and how extreme those party members feel they have to be. Allowing people the choice to do what they want is good, as is giving those who can't afford a choice the chance to survive. This discrepancy is where waste comes from.

For example: In order to make sure every high school student gets a chance to eat a healthy meal, the federal government forces schools to make available three pieces of food per school day to every student. This is good. But also, because a lot of the students aren't at the financial point where they need to eat the food or else go hungry, nearly $100,000 worth of food is thrown into the trash bins of the L.A. Unified School District a day.

This is not so good.

Those are the findings from estimates by the district's food services director. They were arrived at by using a conservative estimate of 10% of the distributed food being thrown into the trash, and multiplying those findings by the 650,000 meals that are handed out per day through L.A. Unified schools. (It's the country's second biggest school district, by the way.) All in all, that waste amounts to nearly $18 million a year because kids are ditching food into the trash instead of eating it.

So, how do we fix that?

One of the big problems associated with school lunches -- and this is something that anyone who's been through a lunch line at high school can attest to -- is that, frankly, they suck. When you're dealing with mass food production, you're always going to sacrifice taste and quality for cost and efficiency. Says a high school senior in the afore-linked piece:

"If the food was good food, we'd have no problems," A'lea said. She dumped her food, then headed off to the school store for a Pop-Tart.

Of course, then you have to consider whether or not the students know what "good food" is. When I was in high school, way back when, I'd regularly forgo choosing veggies if something like chicken fingers were also available. This is what kids want: Fat, and salt, and sugar, and lots of it. The way to counter this, of course, is not by giving in to what they want, as that wouldn't be in their best interests.

Instead, what needs to happen is instruction from home and school, pointing out the negatives of such a junk food-driven lifestyle. Remember those videos from Driver's Ed, usually with names like "Red Pavement," that were intended to scare kids into driving safely? Well, it certainly had an impact on me when getting my license. Take that concept and move it into the health realm. There are worse ideas than showing kids what could happen to their body if they consume nothing but Pop-Tarts and Funyuns.

Another aspect to consider is the strange peer pressure that comes with eating healthy. As Noel Stehly, owner of Stehly Farms, told me back when I questioned him about the new bill forcing California schools to buy from California farmers first before searching elsewhere:

[Consider] the school food system where they have to have a certain serving of fruit or vegetables each day. Then you watch the kids, high school especially, and there's this stigma that you don't eat that good food in front of your peers. So it all just goes in the trash can. Whole apples. That's my concern.

This is another thing that I, personally, can attest to. Eating your vegetables in school is looked down upon, almost as much as reading or studying. It's showing off, of sorts, since you're "doing what the adults want you to." How do you combat this? It's nearly impossible. If there was a simple solution we'd finally be able to put an end to bullying. But one possibility is finding out who "the kids" look up to these days -- whether it's a musician or actor or sports figure -- and taking them on a school tour where they'd give talks about the importance of a healthy diet. Coercing the students to believe that vegetables are not "uncool" is difficult, but important.

But all that said, the thing that's most shocking to me about the findings is that while the total sum of waste is huge, we're still only really talking about ten percent waste. That's well below the rest of the world, which throws out about half the food that's produced. Not to say this issue should be ignored, but people that want to use this as an example of how the taxpayers are being defrauded are missing the point. Ten percent waste for an all-encompassing institution like the school lunch program isn't really that bad.

That number should be lowered, of course, but not if a single student loses the opportunity to choose a healthy lunch.

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