Tossing and turning

What will be the future of food waste?

Chef Ann Cooper.

Imagine winning $1,500 in the lottery — and then throwing the money into the dumpster. That’s essentially what happens to almost every family, every year, as nearly a pound of food every day is tossed from the average household. From overripe bananas and wilted spinach, to leftovers and not-finished meals, to spoiled milk and moldy cheese, millions of tons of food end up in the garbage each year, and Boulder County is no exception.

“We need to institutionalize food waste prevention,” says Cindy Ullman, the self-proclaimed kitchen queen at New Vista High School. “We’re ruining our planet by being picky.”

As a passionate anti-food-waste crusader, Ullman has found a suitable home for that mission in the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD). That’s because BVSD is implementing district-wide programs to dramatically decrease the amount of food discarded at mealtime.

“We’ve been working on positive change in school food for 10 years now,” says Chef Ann Cooper, an author and former restaurant owner who serves as director of food services for BVSD.

Known as the Renegade Lunch Lady, Cooper joined BVSD in 2009, two years after a group of mothers decided that school food needed improvement. Known as the School Food Project, their efforts (with Cooper’s deep involvement) have sprouted more than 200 nutrition education programs each year and nearly 14,000 scratch-cooked meals each day, all contributing to significant food-waste reduction.

BVSD is tracking food waste through Leanpath, a system (made possible through grants) that has kitchen-ready food trackers and automatically creates reports. From August 2017 to March 14, 2018, BVSD tossed 18,163.72 pounds of food costing $13,393.11 from 2,805 transactions. For the same time period this school year, the district has thrown out 15,739.04 pounds — a 13-percent reduction — costing $10,725.22 (a 20-percent reduction).

Signage around schools reminds students to take what they need, and eat what they take, which can be tricky with USDA-mandated serving sizes. Milk, for example, typically comes in 8-ounce cartons, so a student can’t just take 6 ounces. “So we serve bulk milk, and it’s serve-your-own,” says Cooper. “We’ve had significantly less wasted milk.”

Meanwhile, students are undertaking their own efforts, through green-teams and other clubs, to reduce food waste, efforts bolstered by people like Ullman. “You may not like bruised fruit, but eat around the bruise,” she tells students.

Ullman urges Boulder County residents to hide ugly food and play with their food in order to reduce waste. “Chop up the roots of those ugly carrots and put them in pasta sauce,” she suggest. “You can ferment ugly food, you can compost it or you could make a slurry to feed to animals.” If a pear has over-ripened, Ullman might add the mushy part to her oatmeal in the morning. Meal planning, savvy shopping and meal prepping can also reduce food waste and help to offset the global temperature increase predicted for the next 11 years.

“We can change the paradigm,” says Ullman, “so we can be accountable at every level — every single level.”