Learning about Food, Waste, and Climate Change

Learning about Food, Waste, and Climate Change

November 30, 2015 - 8:57pm

Food production and waste are significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Last year my students began to notice the amount of waste being produced by the cafeteria, and they questioned what could be done to reduce it. After all, it’s estimated that 42 percent of food ends up as waste. We began conducting food waste audits in order to see how much and what types of foods were being thrown away.

As part of our initial project we also began vermicomposting (using worms to create compost) with cafeteria waste. While this initial measure was a step in the right direction, the students wanted to do more. So this school year, with financial and peer support from the NOAA Climate Stewards Program, eighth-grade students at Monticello have been engaged in an Action Project that goes beyond vermicomposting and waste audits alone.

I teach five sections of eighth grade classes and each of the five sections is responsible for an aspect of the project:

  1. One class monitors and quantifies the impacts of vermicomposting and composting. This group has also been responsible for researching information about worms and composting in order to learn the most efficient methods for conducting this portion of the project.
  2. Another class is responsible for conducting the food waste audits during each of the daily lunch periods.
  3. vermicultureIn order to better understand regulations regarding the diversion of food waste, one class section is tasked with researching the laws and rules concerning public-school lunches, which includes interviews with a variety of entities and hopefully results in connections with schools around the nation.
  4. Paper and plastic is a significant portion of the waste produced in the cafeteria. Currently the students are recycling plastic lids, soda bottles, and milk cartons, but there is still a significant amount of waste. This is why one class is responsible for conducting research as to which of these other items can be recycled or repurposed, developing a plan for how this can be accomplished, and carrying out the plan.
  5. Each of these four groups is responsible for sharing information online with the class responsible for community outreach. This group then summarizes the information for various stakeholders by writing science articles for the school and local newspaper as well as producing online media. Once the weather in Illinois warms up, the outreach group will also be responsible for maintaining the school garden.

The primary aim of this project is to reduce waste produced by the cafeteria. As students work toward achieving this goal, they will participate in numerous scientific practices and crosscutting concepts, helping to meet Next Generation Science Standards as well as Common Core Language Arts and Math standards. Students will share their ideas with others, calculate and quantify the impact of various actions that address school waste (including recycling and composting), and learn that actions have more impact than words when it comes to learning.

Food WasteEducators at the National Center for Atmospheric Research have also been involved in the NOAA Climate Stewards Project: as webinar presenters; Project lead/advisor, and as organizers and presenters at one of its five Annual Climate Workshops in 2015. The UCAR Center for Science Education will once again be offering a summer workshop next June 2016 for formal and informal educators from throughout the nation. If anyone would like to learn more about Jennifer’s project, the NOAA Climate Stewards Project, or this summer’s Climate Workshop at NCAR in Boulder, Colorado, please contact the appropriate person below:

Jennifer’s Action Project

NOAA Climate Stewards Project

NOAA/NCAR Climate Workshop, June 2016

About the author

smije's picture

Jennifer Smith

My name is Jennifer Smith.  I teach eighth grade science in Monticello, IL and sponsor the school science club.  This is my tenth year of teaching and my eighth year teaching eighth grade.  I try to find ways to actively engage my students in the process of science and everyday actions that make climate change and sustainability tangible, real, observable, and quantifiable. 

Based on food waste audit samples from the last school year, it is reasonable to estimate that the student participants will reduce/divert cafeteria food waste by 30%.  Student participants will create an organic garden space to sequester carbon as well.  The goal set is for participants to reduce the amount of non-food cafeteria waste by 20%.  Additionally, the participants will perform outreach about the project that will help to inform the community of simple changes that can be made to help reduce waste, especially as climate change threatens water, food availability, and food prices in the decades ahead.

A special "thank you" to NOAA Climate Stewards for sponsoring our project financially and UCAR's support of the project through staff leadership and summer climate workshops.