If students are wasting the food on their plates, it’s to everybody’s benefit — health benefit, economic benefit, environmental benefit — if our students are informed consumers and make healthy choices for themselves.”

– Melissa Terry, a graduate student in the Master of Public Administration and Nonprofit Studies program 

U of A Graduate Student Creates Guide for the USDA and EPA Aimed to Reduce Food Waste

U of A Graduate Student Creates Guide for the USDA and EPA Aimed to Reduce Food Waste

by Bettina Lehovec

It’s a difficult statistic to stomach, but a staggering 31 to 40 percent of food produced in the U.S. ends up in landfills each year. 

With numbers like these, Melissa Terry, a graduate student in the Master of Public Administration and Nonprofit Studies program in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences and its Department of Political Science, knew something needed to change. 

So, for the past two years, Terry has been working to develop a national guide to be released December 2016 by the University of Arkansas in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to provide one way to start seeking a solution.

“It’s so exciting to see the completed Guide to Conducting Student Food Waste Audits,” Terry said. “It provides a blueprint for K-12 school programs to follow that will assist students in understanding how individual food choices can collectively lead to broader education goals about the ecosystem, health and food conservation.”

Terry created the guide after looking in vain for a set of protocols for her study of food waste in a local elementary school cafeteria. She approached the USDA and EPA in 2015 because the USDA regulates food in the school cafeteria and the EPA deals with food waste once it leaves the school door.

Neither agency had protocols for a student-based food waste audit; the EPA suggested that Terry write her own. So, she did – but not alone. As a caveat, Terry agreed to write the national guide only if it were co-authored by representatives from the EPA and the USDA. Each agency agreed and a collaborative partnership was born.

Terry said the partnership’s goal “is to help participating students to see the collective impact of our food choices and to understand how those choices leave environmental ‘foodprints’ in local communities and all over the globe. Some of those foodprints are good. Some not so good. So, let’s talk about it.”

The user-friendly guide she created and co-authored with the EPA and the USDA features simple language and a clean design, leading organizers and student volunteers through the ABCs of conducting a post-consumer student food waste audit in their school cafeterias.

The aim is to understand which types of foods are being wasted, and the reasons why this is occurring, to then implement strategies to reduce the waste. The project includes student engagement for learning on a number of levels, such as incorporating science, math and community service learning goals.

Food loss and waste is a serious problem, impacting health, food security and the environment. Food in landfills does not break down the same way it does in compost piles, producing levels of methane that are 21 times as potent as carbon emissions.

“If food waste were its own country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gasses,” Terry said. Additionally, she said the resources needed for food production and the fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides commonly applied to our crops have environmental implications of their own.

“Keeping food out of the landfill is a simple, common sense approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the beauty of the student food waste audits is that students can see for themselves how their individual choices can add up to be a collective force in healthy ecosystems,” she said.

The USDA and EPA also recognize the problem. In 2015, the two federal agencies announced the nation’s first food loss and waste reduction goal, calling for a 50 percent reduction by 2030. In November, both agencies issued a joint press release announcing 15 major U.S. companies pledging a 50 percent reduction in food loss and waste.

In the United States, the EPA estimates that more food reaches landfills and incinerators than any other single material in our everyday trash – about 21 percent of the waste stream. Keeping wholesome and nutritious food in our communities and out of landfills helps communities and the 42 million Americans that live in food insecure households. Reducing food waste also impacts climate change, as 20 percent of total U.S. methane emissions come from landfills.

The EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy prioritizes the following strategies for decreasing food loss and waste: reduce the volume of surplus food produced; donate extra food to food banks, soup kitchens and shelters; divert food scraps to animal feed; provide waste oils for industrial uses such as biofuels and bio-products; create nutrient-rich soil amendments by composting; and use landfills and incinerators as a last resort.

“If you take this to the 50,000-foot view, what you can see is that a public policy nudge that brings all of these issues together is in the best interest of a multitude of players — not just hungry kids or hungry families, but also farmers and climate,” Terry said. “Food policy as a research space and an applied learning space has the potential to have significant impact on each of those issues.”

The initial student food waste audit Terry conducted at Washington Elementary School in Fayetteville in the spring of 2016 has had a very practical impact on one school district already. Terry initially wanted to look at the amount of fruits and vegetables students threw away, but the five-day audit revealed a far larger source of waste. Students were discarding large quantities of milk, both from opened cartons and unopened containers.

Further studies at four Washington County elementary schools in partnership with the Washington County Environmental Affairs department showed the same results: children were taking milk they did not want and discarding it in prodigious amounts. Additionally, students were throwing away unopened containers of milk, and uneaten and unpeeled fruit.

The solution? As a behavioral economics remedy, Terry worked with the Fayetteville School District to purchase reusable, restaurant-grade cups so that students could simply get a glass of water instead. The school’s PTO bought the cups and the Beaver Water District helped upgrade the water fountain in the lunch room. In a follow up audit a month later, data revealed that milk waste had decreased by 22 percent.

As another solution, Terry also designated a “share table” where children could return food they had taken in unopened containers. She also put a sign at the milk station encouraging children not to take milk they didn’t want. Only the food on each child’s plate counts toward the nutritional requirements set by the USDA, she said, so students deciding not to take a milk if they didn’t want one wouldn’t be missing out on any nutrients.

The pilot program offering water in reusable cups was so successful that other elementary schools in Fayetteville now offer this option as well. The innovation benefits all parts of the problem – keeping children hydrated, keeping costs down (milk is the most expensive item on the lunch tray) and keeping unused food out of the waste stream.

“If students are wasting the food on their plates, it’s to everybody’s benefit — health benefit, economic benefit, environmental benefit — if our students are informed consumers and make healthy choices for themselves,” Terry said.

Additionally, Terry facilitated a food waste audit during the National Consumer League annual conference in Denver, Colo., last spring, leading about 350 high school students through the process. She shared the results of her Washington County audit at the Arkansas School Nutrition Association meeting in July.

She also attended the Reduce and Recover: Save Food for People conference at Harvard for the past two summers, has been a guest blogger for the food policy organization, Food Tank, and has served as a guest speaker at the Arkansas Recycling Coalition Food Waste Workshop, the USDA Nutrition Director’s Regional Conference, and the University of Arkansas’ Food Waste and Hunger Summit.

This summer, Terry and her family were invited to represent Arkansas in a climate change rally organized by Moms Clean Air Force in Washington, D.C. on July 13. While in the nation’s capital, Terry visited with Arkansas senators John Boozman and Tom Cotton to talk about food waste-related issues.

Margaret Reid, professor in the Department of Political Science, is Terry’s advisor. She said Terry’s accomplishments are amazing.

“Melissa Terry is a prime example of how a passionate and driven student can create the change they want to see in our world,” Reid said. “Her research, the guide she created, and her activism will directly affect public policy and has the potential to make a measurable dent in our country’s food waste.”

Terry is currently working with the Sustainable Materials Management team of the EPA, the Food and Nutrition Services branch of the USDA, the End Food Waste Working Group of the National Food Policy Consortium and, on the state level, with the Access to Healthy Food Team of the Arkansas Coalition for Obesity Prevention.

She was recently awarded a contracted fellowship with the World Wildlife Fund to facilitate student food waste audits at the national level and is partnering with the Environmental Research and Education Foundation, the EPA, the USDA, and the National Consumers League to formalize that process.

Jennifer Holland

About the author

Bettina Lehovec is 2001 graduate of the Walter J. Lemke Department of Journalism and serves as a feature writer for the University of Arkansas.