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Photo of food served in elementary school cafeteria sparks debate online: 'Change is possible if you ask'

"It's disgusting how much plastic we use and misuse."

"It's disgusting how much plastic we use and misuse."

Photo Credit: iStock

A school cafeteria's practices are under the spotlight after a photo revealed uneaten strawberries slated for the dumpster. Concerningly, the berries were packaged in bulky plastic

What's happening?

In the r/Anticonsumption community on Reddit, one user shared an image of delicious-looking strawberries they had brought home from a school cafeteria.

"There's 2-3 strawberries per package," the Redditor explained. "These are the ones that were brought home so they wouldn't go in the trash." 

"It's disgusting how much plastic we use and misuse."
Photo Credit: Reddit

One commenter zeroed in on the choice of plastic packaging. While the large containers appear to hold as many strawberries as they can given their shape, plenty of space can be seen between the berries.  

"It's disgusting how much plastic we use and misuse," they wrote.  

Why is this important?

The way we consume resources has a significant impact on our health and our planet. 

One study by the World Wildlife Fund estimates that schools waste around 530,000 tons of food annually, excluding milk. This costs $1.7 billion, even as approximately 13 million children struggle to get enough food. 

In landfills, food rots and releases methane, a gas that is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide in heating the planet over 100 years. This has contributed to rising global temperatures linked to extreme weather events like floods, wildfires, and droughts. 

In this case, the original poster was able to step in to prevent the strawberries from going to the trash while they were still safe to eat. This is something that grocery chains Kroger and Trader Joe's have done with perishable food more broadly during power outages. 

However, the strawberries are still wrapped in a lot of plastic, which is generally made using highly polluting fuels like motor oil and gasoline. Unfortunately, tiny particles called microplastics can end up in our otherwise healthy food. 

One report published by the Endocrine Society found that plastics caused an additional $250 billion in health care costs in 2018. Toxic chemicals in plastic have been linked to hormone disruptions, cancers, and neurological issues, among other things. 

Why would the school package the strawberries in plastic?

One commenter on the original post wondered if the school was working with limited resources.

"I wonder if OP's school even has a kitchen?" they inquired. "I heard some schools don't have cooking facilities, just ovens and heated trays to warm up pre-packaged food." 

Several other commenters shared that their districts didn't have fully functioning kitchens, indicating that plastic may have been an easy way to make things available. 

What's being done about waste in schools more broadly?

Some students have taken their health into their own hands. In Port Washington, New York, for example, middle schoolers and high schoolers advocated for their district to begin phasing out plastic products. Now, fruits and cookies are no longer wrapped in plastic, and single-use water bottles have been replaced with cans, which have a longer recycling life

CalRecycle also highlighted how the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency are working to educate younger generations on the importance of reducing food and material waste. Zero-waste lunches, food donations, and composting are among the ways schools can work toward a brighter future. 

"We have regular plastic reusable trays now, or at least the pressed paper single use containers which can be composted," one commenter shared. "So change is possible if you ask! It's not perfect, but perfect is the enemy of progress."  

If your child takes lunch to school from home, packing the food in non-plastic sandwich bags is one way to support in-school efforts to reduce waste. Another alternative is to use reusable silicone containers.  

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