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Bringing home the problem of wasted food at school

Every morning, millions of school lunches are packed and sent off with the kids in their bags and backpacks. Not all of it gets eaten though.

And whether it’s been swapped, dropped or hurled across the playground, it usually stays at school – in a bin.

Uneaten food that is wasted has become a significant problem, so the Waste Wise Schools Program (WWS) in Western Australia (WA) decided to do something about it. 

It teamed up with BehaviourWorks and Monash University’s Faculty of Education to tackle avoidable food waste in WA schools.

Happy little somethingmites

BWA used its behaviour change methodology to explore the problem, identify key behaviours and target audiences.

BWA conducted a rapid literature review. It revealed two behaviours that would reduce avoidable food waste in schools; the first was for parents to involve their kids more in the selection, preparation and packing of the food they took to school and the second was for kids to make sure they took any leftover food back home.

Two behaviours, two target groups. BWA then took a ‘deep dive’ to find out more.

Six hundred parents and 600 students in WA were chosen at random to take part in a survey. They were asked which of these behaviours they were currently doing and about their beliefs of the advantages/disadvantages, and barriers/enablers of these behaviours.

Sometimes it adds up

The results showed that change isn’t as simple as growling “make sure you eat your sandwiches”.

Getting parents and their kids to adopt these behaviours would require some tweaks and a kind of homework.

Food waste turns out to be a small problem that adds up to a large one – most kids eat most of their food most of the time, but they sometimes don’t.  ‘Sometimes’ multiplied across many schools equals ‘big’.

It also turns out that parents and students thought that the two target behaviours were actually no brainers (the best kind of behaviour change) and would not be much trouble to take up.

Despite a slight pushback from some parents (faced with proof that their kids were not eating everything), they agreed to give it a go.

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You take that back

So, how to get students to take back leftover food? A design workshop with WA teachers and waste educators identified that it might be as simple as a school policy about leftovers going home and removing bins from the schoolyard.

Sometimes it’s not about actively engaging people to think differently, it’s simply about preventing the undesirable behaviour during the odd times that it occurs.

Not all behaviour change can be brought about by regulation or infrastructure change, but sometimes it’s more effective (and easier) than changing attitudes or social norms.

Next on the menu? Homework.

And what about parents getting kids involved in their own food preparation? Based on the project’s feedback, WWS is going to test an additional intervention to the ‘all leftovers go home’ policy; rolling out food skills and cooking workshops for parents, to help them involve their children more getting food ready for school.

For some parents and kids, this will be a first. The next stage is ‘going live’ – trialling these interventions in schools in Western Australia to promote the target behaviours.

WWS and BWA are aiming not just for a drop in avoidable food waste in schools, but also to embed the longer term habit of school kids being involved in their own food preparation for school.For parents, it could mean extra peace of mind and an extra coffee in the morning…

The BWA researcher is Mark Boulet and the project report is here.

Image with thanks to Paul Hammond via Flickr.