It’s lunchtime at a local elementary school.

Kids snake through the line as they do every school day, grab an entrée, a piece of fruit, a side item, and a beverage, then pay for their meal and take their places at a lunch table. Nothing out of the ordinary here.

But then those kids, on average, throw half of their food away, sometimes as much as 70 percent of it, according to an analysis of food waste research being done by Lindsey Kummer of Frederick, Md., a rising junior majoring in human nutrition, foods and exercise in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She is one of a handful of students participating in the Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise Summer Undergraduate Research Scholars Program, which is sponsored by the department and the Fralin Life Science Institute.

Kummer’s research aims to figure out why one pre-K and four kindergarten classes threw away uneaten food and, most importantly, gives a dollar figure to the students’ food waste.

Kummer, a former competitive figure skater who grew up with healthy eating habits reinforced at home, always thought choosing nutritional foods would help her perform her best as an athlete.

Studying food waste examines the resources, time, and energy it takes to get food to the consumer — only for it to end up rotting in a landfill or dumpster.

“Food waste is not only about the nutritional aspects of poor diets — it’s also about economics,” said Kummer. “Money is allocated at the federal level to support school lunch programs and that money is being wasted.”

“Lindsey’s research is focusing on quantifying the direct cost of food waste. We think a dollar amount may be more compelling to kids, parents, teachers, and administrators to take action and be mindful about food,” said Elena Serrano, associate professor of human nutrition, foods and exercise, and Kummer’s mentor in the department’s summer scholar program.

Kummer’s analysis found that the total cost of waste for the 304 lunches observed during the week the research team was at the elementary school was $219.99, or 72 cents per child. A whopping 70 percent of the vegetables in the lunch were wasted.

The total cost doesn’t seem like much overall, but consider the figures represent only one-fifth of the entire school in one week.  If you were to measure an entire school’s annual food waste, it would quickly get into the hundreds of thousand of dollars. Once you expand that cost to schools across the nation, the amount wasted is astronomical.

A few decades ago, the topic of food waste may have only drawn the ire of frantic parents who lamented leftover dinner being tossed in the family garbage can. But as the world population approaches 9 billion, food waste is not just about children who clean their plate. Food waste is a defining socio-economic concern of the 21st century in both the developed and developing world. Waste is entangled in every aspect of food production and consumption, from the farmer to the cook to the consumer, and has proven to be a major contributor to not only food insecurity, but global warming and obesity worldwide.

Globally, addressing food waste is taking center stage as one of the drivers in achieving food security. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the amount of food the developing world throws away — 222 million tons — is almost as much as the entire food production of sub-Saharan Africa. Worldwide, fruits, vegetables, and roots and tuber crops such as potatoes, have the highest waste rates of any food — another finding that was mirrored by the Virginia Tech analysis.

Kummer’s preliminary data supports the idea that food waste is an epidemic, even on the microscale of one elementary school grade level in Southwestern Virginia.

“A tremendous amount of resources goes into serving these prepared foods — from growing and harvesting them to transporting and preparing them,” said Serrano. “So many resources are literally being thrown away.”

“What this research says is that while the U.S. Department of Agriculture has ensured that school lunches meet robust standards, including colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, we have a long way to go to get kids to eat the foods. We also have to address a culture that is OK with wasting food,” said Serrano.

During the summer of 2013, almost 100 students are taking part in paid undergraduate research experiences through the Fralin Life Science Institute Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship; the Scieneering program; Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise Summer Undergraduate Research Scholars Program; the Summer Engineering Education Collaboratory program; and Research Experiences for Undergraduates in Tire and Automotive Engineering. The Office of Undergraduate Research is coordinating workshops and activities for the programs’ participants through the summer. Students will present their work at the Virginia Tech Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium on Wednesday, July 31.



Written by Amy Loeffler.
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