A teachable moment: Eat your lunch!

The New York Times has a somber editorial today, lamenting the increase in the number of children receiving free and reduced-price lunches, The School Lunch Barometer.

But there is another story here, that, in many ways, is equally distressing: the amount of food that goes to waste. As a recent Chicago Tribune story began,

On visits to lunchrooms in Chicago public schools, the Tribune watched as vast quantities of unpeeled fruit, vegetables, milk cartons and other items got pitched into the garbage.

And, of course, “The district doesn't track how much food gets thrown away.”

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency did look and in a 2010 study, called Digging Deep Through School Trash, discovered that “[t]he most prominent single material generated by schools was food waste, which was 23.9% of the total waste generated.”

This kind of profligate spending should inspire outrage; instead, indifference. According to Ron Haskins in a 2005 report for Education Next, the lunch and breakfast program costs us $10 billion a year. Though I am sure that some children benefit, the program is not so much a food program as it is a poster child for government waste -- and, in this case, a systemic abdication of adult responsibility.

I participate in a lunchtime reading program at one of our schools and so get a close-up view of the problem: children picking at food, eating little, tossing away lots, including, of course, the Styrofoam tray and plastic utensils. Whole cartons of milk, unopened, go into the 30-gallon garbage container every day, as do half-eaten chicken nuggets, untouched peas, and a host of other foodstuff. There is no supervision, no attempt to encourage kids to eat their food, let alone require them to do so.

Indeed, our hearts should go out to poor children, but our schools do these children – not to mention the taxpayers -- a great disservice in allowing them to throw their free lunches away.

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