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The unjust shaming of a little girl highlights the broad issue of institutional food waste.

Author: Kelly Alexander and Joshua Reno

“Opinion | The Unjust Shaming of a Little Girl Highlights the Broad Issue of Institutional Food Waste.” Washington Post, 4 Feb. 2022.,

On Nov. 21, a 9-year-old student of color at Palm Elementary School in Lorain, Ohio, didn't want to eat the packaged waffles that had been put on her lunch tray. When she threw them away, a White cafeteria monitor forced the girl to retrieve them from the trash and sit at a table until she ate them. Within weeks, the monitor and the school principal were both fired. But the story did not end there. In January, the district released video of the event, and it is being used as evidence in a civil rights lawsuit against the district.

Whatever the outcome of the case, this incident has exposed cracks around race and class as they play out in the country's long-standing commitment to feeding the more than 30 million public school students who rely on the National School Lunch Program every day. From our perspective as anthropologists who specialize in the studies of waste and food, it also spotlights the lamentable, fixable problem of how institutions manage crucial food resources.

Food waste has always been wrapped up in moral politics. But that doesn't adequately address what happened here: What alternative does a school give kids for the foods they neither choose to put on their trays nor wish to eat?

Look closely at the three key decisions that were made in this situation: The child decided to discard the waffles; the cafeteria monitor, judging that to be wasteful, decided to teach the child a lesson; and the district administration, recognizing the shaming, decided to fire the monitor and the principal. With each decision in the chain, the original act of wasting food was complicated: On one end were individual decisions about consuming (or not) and teaching others to make good choices; on the other were people judging one another's choices and wanting them to either eat or educate differently.

This child needs and deserves justice. In addition, though, we urge policymakers to take this moment to consider what it means to both eat well and waste well in the context of U.S. public schools. It is particularly important at a time when elected officials are debating the issue of universal free public school meals and as ever more families depend on school meals. Even as the video of the waffle incident has joined the never-ending spectacle of racially charged footage circulating on the Internet, we also see it as an example of what happens when waste is grossly misunderstood.

We use the term "grossly" deliberately. It is arguably not "gross" to eat something out of the trash can if it is viable food, particularly if its packaging has never been opened. However, it is gross to force a child to eat something they do not wish to eat. (And not only a child: In a society where institutions including schools, hospitals, and prisons are enmeshed in the politics of race and class, force-feeding has become an issue.)

In this case, if the officials at Palm Elementary were honestly concerned about waste and interested in recuperating surplus food, they could have placed alternate bins near the trash cans and worked with local food banks and homeless shelters to reroute edible discards to people who might need them. Instead, the situation was left in the hands of a 9-year-old and an adult who happened to oversee the room.

What different moral lessons could be imparted to schoolchildren -- and those who teach them -- if lending mutual aid through surplus food should become a possibility? Food recuperation is at the heart of a large and important issue: a necessary, broad shift in how edible waste is conceived by U.S. institutions.

If we continue to align food waste with moral rights and wrongs, scenarios like the waffle scene will likely continue. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that U.S. public schools waste about 39.2 pounds of food and 28.7 cartons of milk per student per year. We need to reimagine the value of discarded but viable food in a way that makes it okay to eat what you like, okay to set aside what you do not and morally good to redistribute that surplus to places where it could be appreciated.

Kelly Alexander teaches food studies in the American Studies Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Joshua Reno is a professor of anthropology at Binghamton University.

DMU Timestamp: March 11, 2023 09:24

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