School Lunch Waste

Food waste is a serious problem in the U.S., where it is estimated that some 40 percent of our food annually goes into the garbage stream. School lunch waste — from half-eaten meals to individual packaging — is a major factor.

But we all know that the school morning is a hectic time, with parents and students hustling to get some breakfast, get dressed, grab a lunch, and get out the door before the bell rings and the boss glances at an empty desk. Finding homework, finding shoes, braiding hair, signing permission slips — it’s a wonder that anyone arrives ready to start their day with any composure at all.

The modern default is to assemble lunch from a gaggle of individually packaged foods that can be quickly thrown into a paper bag and blasted out the door. Big box stores even offer apple slices individually packaged and all wrapped up in one large plastic bag.

Yet an unsliced apple is perfectly packaged unto itself. A cloth bag takes a lot of abuse before it tears. A metal container might dent but requires some concerted effort to break. A thermos can be rinsed; an insulated water bottle, re-used.

With more schools initiating compost programs, school gardens, and zero-waste drives, lunchtime is getting greener. Perhaps your family is ready to make the switch.

As every parent knows, laying the groundwork is the key. With schools opening for the new year and everyone spending money on clothes and supplies anyway, consider putting some cash aside to invest in take-away packaging that will last.

Our essential list includes a sturdy lunchpail that can actually double as seat, re-usable waxed cloths instead of Saran, cheerful napkins that love to launder, and bento box bags that are bright, fun to carry, and can accommodate much more than sushi.

Laying in even the cheapest Tupperware-style containers makes a difference. (You can recycle them when you’ve inevitably lost the only matching lid.) Use them to portion food instead of reaching for individually packaged items, and not only will you prevent more plastic from going into the waste stream, you’ll save money.

Buy a bright, inexpensive set of cutlery that your child can recognize, perhaps her forks and spoons are always red, which won’t sadden anyone’s grandmother if they’re lost on the playground — and pack those for daily re-use.

And then there’s the food itself. Engaging your child in his or her lunch choices is one way to ensure that they actually eat the stuff. We remember one orange that traveled to and from school for a solid week before simply deteriorating from the effort, and so stopped giving that child an orange in his lunch. He did eat the apples.

Sandwiches are handy but choices from last night’s dinner often offer more nutrition and staying power. Protein is king. Sweets that come from dried fruit provide more sustenance, and a handful of semi-sweet chocolate chips transform a little tub of organic raisins into a dessert.

You’re late. One daughter can’t find her shoes, one son can’t find his homework, no one’s finished their breakfast, and there’s still lunch to grab for the day. Getting the family ready in the morning is a hustle. Having the containers you need into which you can throw some sliced cheese, a bit of chicken from dinner, some cut-up fruit, a raft of crackers, and a handful of raisins before filling the thermos with milk and the bottle with water can make that hustle slightly more of a dance.

You might even miss these mornings some day.

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