Food waste is a hot national topic these days as we all try to wrap our heads around the fact that about 40% of food in the U.S. goes to the landfill (read more about food waste here). For many people it is just as much as a civic problem as it is an environmental problem, especially with children in mind: in a country where one in five children is food insecure, it is unconscionable that so much nourishment is going to waste.
But what do you do if your children say “Yuk!” again and again? Especially in a household where food waste is more than just wastefulness—it’s a budget disaster?
For families who are pinching pennies and saving food assistance dollars to feed their children, the cost of food waste is a daily economic problem: putting food in the garbage means that there might not be food at the end of the month. Caitlin Daniel, a Harvard researcher and Sociology PhD candidate, recently tackled this issue by studying the eating habits of 73 families. She found some useful information that may help improve the diets of low income kids.
Daniel recounts her research in a recent New York Times Op-ed. She studied the decisions that families face when getting their children to eat new things, particularly healthy things. The work is predicated on the fact that most kids are picky. She explains that it takes the average child eight to fifteen attempts until they will become accustomed to something new. Before then, it will probably be wasted. For affluent families, this waste is not a problem. But families on a tight budget, are then faced with a choice of taking a risk on feeding their kids something healthy and new, or sticking with an unhealthy choice that is a guaranteed hit. Daniel recounts speaking to one of her families to illustrate this point:
When I asked her about offering cauliflower 10 times to shape her son’s tastes, a poor mother from a town outside Boston said:
No. No. That’s a lot of wasted food.” This mother faces an uncomfortable choice: She can experiment and risk an empty cupboard, or she can make her food last by serving what her son likes, even if it’s not the healthiest and even if she feels guilty about it."
Just like this mother, most people might make that choice if put into the same circumstances. Calories are tantamount to healthy food when the survival mentality kicks in as it does for people in dire economic situations.
Remediating the diets of low-income children, in Daniel’s opinion, is dependent on giving them those eight to fifteen incidences of exposure. She suggests frozen and/or single servings packages of food to help, but also looks out to the community, particularly schools, as an avenue of getting new types of nutritious food on kid’s plates.
The good news is that these types of school based programs are popping up all over the palace. Alice Waters’ famed Edible Schoolyard Project, or the now world-renowned Stephen Ritz and his Green Bronx Machine are two fabulous examples. FoodCorps, yet another. The National Farm to School Network and the many groups that are promoting the Farm to School Act provide a national lens on the problem as well. Leaders of programs such as these often tell us that children are far more interested in eating new (and healthy!) foods when they grow them or visit a farm or community garden.
It’s time that we start looking at the bigger picture of why wellness inequality exists and start stepping up to do something about it. Daniel’s research sheds some light on the importance of exposing kids often to a variety of healthy foods. Let’s continue to support work that helps to make these types of initiatives happen!
- Economic Constraints on Taste Formation and the True Cost of Healthy Eating via Harvard Scholar Caitlin Daniel
- A Hidden Cost to Giving Kids Their Vegetables via The New York Times