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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

A few pieces of related news have scrolled past my eyes in the past week. The first wasn't really news because the article cited data published in 2017. But I hadn't seen this information from the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. According to trended data from the EPA, Americans thew out a record 40.7 million tons of food in 2017, which is almost double the figure from 1995. Our population has only grown by 22% over these 25 years, so it appears we are getting more wasteful over time, at least as measured by the amount solid municipal waste recorded or reported. And this doesn't capture all the food that is lost - not consumed by humans anyway - in the system, all the way from the farm through to the dumpsters behind food stores.

I probed a bit into the consumer responsibility around reducing food waste in a Talk to Me About Food podcast about a year ago. The random group of women I spoke with were genuinely concerned and claimed to be consciously taking steps to reduce food waste in their households. These women were doing at least 20 of the 37 things to lessen waste on a list I compiled from various sources including the USDA and EPA. People say they are shopping the fridge and pantry before making shopping lists. They say they are creative with perishable ingredients. They admit that they could do more, like storing food better, but you would think we would be doing better over time, not worse. As I mentioned in the earlier podcast, the time and budget pressures of running a household, especially one with kids, makes it difficult to find the time and attention to consistently do the little and big things to keep food out of the garbage. I read a summary of a just-published academic paper which underscores the challenges we face as consumers trying to reduce food waste.

"Towards a multi-level framework of household food waste and consumer behaviour: Untangling spaghetti soup" (Mark Boulet, Annet C. Hoek, Rob Raven) proposes a comprehensive model of factors that influence the amount of household food waste. There are micro (individual) level factors like attitudes, kitchen "skill" level, life experiences, and financial resources, then meso (household) factors such as composition, interdependence, and the physical attributes of the dwelling. Finally there are macro (outside the household) considerations. Workplaces, schools, social networks, social norms, and climate, for example. These all seem reasonable. The thing is, it's not a linear process of influence for any of us. There are feedback loops that can both reinforce and inhibit food waste-reducing behavior. If this dynamic model is accurate, it's hard to predict how much or how little food waste any one household will produce at any point in time, or over time. This tangle of influences seems to have caused more of us to produce more food waste over time, not less.

There's hope, I think. The global pandemic has forced many of us into the kitchen. More of us are spending more time in the kitchen than maybe we ever have. We're being forced to reconsider what we buy, how to make meals, and how we dispose of stuff. We're more "intimate" with our food and piling-up trash, so perhaps more willing to make the extra effort not to create food waste. And many of us are having to economize. Making the most of what we have in our fridges and pantries saves money too.

There's hope outside the home too. Too Good To Go is an app that is all about reducing food waste. It is a platform that connects restaurants holding food about to go to waste with hungry eaters looking for a good value and looking to good at the same time. Too Good to Go has made a mark in Europe and was launched in NYC a month ago, according to Some 15,000 eaters have signed up already to save up to 67% on items that are left over at the end of the day at 250 restaurants, cafes, and food stores.

Reducing food waste is everyone's problem. The other headline that recently caught my eye announced a broad commitment from food manufacturers, suppliers, and retailers. Food Dive reports that 200 companies have pledged to cut food waste in half by 2030. This is ambitious. And necessary.

But reducing food waste starts and ends with the consumer, from what I see. You and me. More than anything it means a mindset change for many of us. From an expectation of "plenty" to satisfaction with "enough." A mindset driven by "plenty" invites over-production and over-consumption. It also excuses wastefulness. Meeting the demands of "enough" should reduce the amount of food available to waste. We would likely also be more selective about what we buy, favoring quality over quantity, which means we could be more inspired to make the most of the food we've got in the fridge, in the pantry, and on the plate of take-out food in front of us, instead of throwing it out.

  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

Alice Waters, the acclaimed chef, author, and food activist who created Berkeley's Chez Panisse, launched The Edible Schoolyard Project in1995 with the aim of better nourishing school kids - "free sustainable lunch for kids K-12" - as well as nurturing a better, more direct connection between the upcoming generations of kids and the food chain that feeds them. A school is not just for "reading, riting, and rithmetic." The land the school sits on can be a learning environment if you teach kids the basics of growing food on that proving ground and see them learn to love eating the fresh, good-for-you food they've harvested in the school cafeteria.

The model for the Edible Schoolyard Project movement is at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California. There, a special curriculum is built around a one-acre garden classroom and a kitchen classroom where they learn to be farmers and cooks. This curriculum dovetails with what the kids learn in science and humanities classes in a very hands-on way.

The Edible Schoolyard Project has made a mark beyond the Berkeley public school system through a professional development program and short courses. There are almost 7,000 programs in their network which spans every state and U.S. territory as well as 75 other countries.

I wish, though, for more, broader, on-the-ground progress towards the vision set by organizations like The Edible Schoolyard. The aspiration is so compelling but the truth about what kids eat at lunch at school every day is less so, twenty-five years later.

The wish for a healthier, more interesting school lunch has been gnawing at me, gently, since my oldest daughter entered kindergarten a dozen years ago. What was on the menu then in that school district is not very different from what is offered now in a different school district in a different state. We've been fortunate, all along, to live in well-resourced districts that I felt were led by enlightened, thoughtful, and somewhat progressive educators, and encouraged by like-minded, demanding parents. That's why I continue to be surprised and disappointed by the prevalence of convenience (some of it downright junk) food and freshly-made food that is less than inspiring.

Lunch entrees listed by my school district's Child Nutrition department: Fries, Chicken Tenders, Chicken Nuggets, Hamburger/Cheeseburger, Hot Dog/Corn Dog, Pizza, Burrito/Hot Pocket, Baked Potato, Pasta Bowl, Steak Fingers with Gravy, Sub Sandwich, Mozzarella Sticks, Bento Box. You can imagine the Snacks list.

My kids will buy the occasional bag of chips or muffin but steer clear of the entrees and salad bar. The thing is, it's just not tasty food, even though it's definitely a kid-friendly menu.

It's encouraging to see that, according The Edible Schoolyard Project, several California school districts are being supported by programs that provide freshly made meals on the lunch menu; meals made with food grown on school grounds and food brought in from local farms and ranches that subscribe to regenerative agriculture practices. I'm guessing the kids like the food too!

I hope it doesn't take another twenty-five years for another few school districts (and ones in a more conservative part of the country) to adopt the principles and policies that truly transform school lunch menus and also support a food chain that is truly sustainable. I do realize that this entails more than principle and policy. Beyond overcoming inertia, the system of incentives, especially financial incentives, that drives the current school lunch model favors low cost, convenient food that costs less to prepare and serve. School district administrators would have to restructure or even abandon long-term food service supplier agreements and enter new arrangements, for example. They might have to work with several suppliers, farmers and ranchers, instead of either Sysco or US Foods. It means more work in a climate of uncertain budgets.

But...there are more than 15,000 school districts in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That's an awful lot of additional kids waiting to benefit from a healthier lunch. At the same time, many experts say we don't have twenty-five years to make sustainable agriculture the norm, and the basis for that healthier school lunch.

I'm fired to up to learn more about how an Edible Schoolyard program works and how you and I can contribute to making our local programs work even harder. There are half a dozen within an hour of where I live, so I'm hoping to get a schooling in the not-too-distant future.

More to come on The Edible Schoolyard, and regenerative agriculture more broadly, on an upcoming episode of the Talk to Me About Food podcast.

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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

The USDA recently released an annual data series about production and consumption of dairy products. There is nothing dramatic in the updated 2019 data points, nor would I expect a big swing in per capita consumption trends. 2020 might, though, be a dramatic inflection data point...I just had never looked at the trends going back to 1975. Most folks in food marketing or research would know that Americans have steadily been drinking less milk for almost fifty years. No, we don't "Got Milk" in our fridges or pantries (shelf stable) as much as we used to.

But, what I didn't realize is that we've been shifting, knowingly or unwittingly, some of us maybe even sneaking dairy into our diet in other ways. So much so that that the per capita consumption of dairy products overall has grown by over 20%, pretty steadily since 1975! Fluid milk consumption is down over 40% over the same period.

It's not about us eating more ice cream instead. Ice cream per person consumption is down 25% since 1975. That's kind of surprising too.

But, butter has been contributing a bit to the rise in dairy consumption since the late aughts. I was at Unilever during the decade before this, when margarine had the upper hand over butter. We had a stable of spreads brands, always cheaper than butter, that we marketed as healthier than butter because these spreads had much less saturated fat and no cholesterol. But butter has always been the gold standard for taste. And it's a more natural product. As our views around fats have evolved, and more of us are looking for cleaner ingredient labels, butter's fortunes have risen to the point where we each ate more butter in 2019 than in 1975.

Yogurt has been a major contributor to per capita dairy consumption gains. In 1975 we each ate just 2 pounds of refrigerated yogurt, compared to 15 pounds in 2014, when consumption peaked. Yogurt is still a force in the packaged foods world. It's perceived as good for you. It tastes good (it doesn't hurt that many of the popular yogurts are packed with sugar which dairy milk isn't). Yogurt is fairly convenient - faster and easier than a bowl of cereal, anyway. It's filling, and relatively affordable. You might think that all the talk about plant-based foods is taking business away from yogurt. But plant-based inroads remain small. We recently did research with folks open to trying a plant-based yogurt, and most said they were looking to minimize their dairy consumption. But dairy yogurt has been somewhat flat for the last several years while plant-based yogurt has been taking more shelf space, so if people are switching away from dairy, it's being masked by something else. It's hard to walk away from a thick, rich, smooth, and creamy dairy yogurt.

An even bigger driver is our penchant for cheese. 24 pounds more per year of cheese since our Bicentennial. More Monterey, Jack and other types of cheese we use in Mexican food. And more Italian-type cheese. It's all the pizza. Another food that works on several levels. A tasty, convenient, feed-a lot-for-not-a lot food. A real crowd-pleaser. Imagine a pizza or an enchilada without cheese. Those options don't get ordered very often. We've got to have the gooey stuff.

Big picture, veganism remains a very small behavior. Maybe 2-3% of the U.S. population from what I've read. Strict vegetarianism is not that much bigger here either. There are a growing number of "flexitarians" among us, cutting out meat, here and there, and cutting back on dairy sometimes. That "sometimes" is not as often as you might think, it appears.

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