Gen Z, Millennials Take On Food Waste: Part 2

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

February 2, 2022

7 Min Read
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Drexel University

Youth typically like to ask a lot of questions and to explore, and when their curiosity leads to what they see as jarring, far-reaching problems, they like to belly up to the bar and help solve them. Knowing this, some of their educators, employers, and their entrepreneurial peers are challenging them to address some of the world’s most pressing environmental dilemmas: food waste, hunger, and other problems tied to a complex, flawed food system.

This article is part 2 of a two-part series. It explores what Megan Haupt of Hungry Education is doing to wake kids up to issues around food and the food system, beginning at age 2.

Waste360: Your approach to teaching kids about food systems sounds very unique. Can you explain that approach and philosophy behind it?

Haupt: When most people talk about food education, they talk about nutrition or cooking skills, but we focus on food relationships.

Food is much more than simply what we put into our bodies; it’s tied to how we relate to the world at large. It’s how we relate to each other culturally. It’s how we structure our food systems. This relationship is complex. Yet children as young as two are capable of having complex relationships with the world around them, and we honor that. We help them connect with food by helping them to understand these relationships. We do it through learning where we place kids in groups based on age and interest. We develop these curricula for businesses and other organizations.

Waste360: Why do you start with children as young as two? Describe the program for this age. 

Haupt: Research shows they can already begin to identify brands at age two. This tells us they are capable of engaging with the world on a somewhat complex level. So, we developed a program for ages two to four and their caregivers that’s play-based and sensory-driven learning. 

We teach hands-on lessons using whole foods. We do recipes so they can see how food gets from point a to point b, with point a being taking a whole piece of food and preparing it, and point b is putting it in their mouths once it’s prepared. 

Kids, at least by age 4, come to realize they can make applesauce from apples they may not see in the grocery store because they are not pretty, or that our parents would have thrown out because they were overripe. 

We incorporate literature, games, movement, and dance. And we ask parents to model healthy relationships so children can learn alongside them. We give parents information on how to model using food fully and not discarding most of it simply because it doesn’t work for your recipe or because you let it go bad.  

Waste360: Describe the “kid-driven, curiosity-based learning” that you offer five- to 13-year-olds. 

Haupt: At these ages, they are asking more complex questions of why. So, we bring them to grocery stores and restaurants and have speakers talk to them about how the food system works. 

A big concern of educators in this space is the food system is opaque, almost by design. So, we bring up what they might not be aware of like how food is made and how it gets from one place to another. And why some foods get wasted, like bananas which historically have been overproduced.  You can get a free banana in so many places, and kids often throw it away. It’s not something they take as a precious item.

They begin to look at where bananas are being thrown out and why. And how we can reduce that.  So, this is kid-driven, curiosity-based learning, which is learning kids show interest in and begin to pursue on their own. They ask why, and we provide them with information to respond to that curiosity. We incorporate these lessons into math, history, science, and literature. 

Waste360: Where age appropriate, how do you demonstrate how food waste can be prevented or reduced?

Haupt: We demonstrate through our own actions as educators. We have educators who have collected food waste scraps for composting and explained that process. We’ve also built into the curricula science-based activities to explain processes like composting or how to recycle food scraps into nonfood items, like using pineapples to create leather. 

Waste360: Tell us about the field trip program you designed for ages four to 18.

Haupt: We developed this program for Reading Terminal Market, one of America’s largest and oldest public markets, located in Pennsylvania. We usually build the lessons around food or food themes. We pick foods most kids like or recognize. We had activities around bananas, pickles, and ice cream showing for instance how to make frozen treats from overripe bananas. We’ve created metal polish using banana peels and citrus peels so they see you can use food scraps in other ways. 

Waste360: What’s different about 14- through 18-year-olds and how do you engage this group? 

Haupt: They are looking for solutions to problems and want to be part of the conversation. 

Climate change is one of the biggest concerns for Gen Z’s, so we tie food waste back to climate change, and we facilitate opportunities for them to create solutions. We bring in professionals to talk about this and they apply what they learn from STEM (science, technology engineering, and math) to come up with solutions.  

Waste360: You say sometimes you incorporate science fiction genres in lessons. Why and how?

Haupt: Sci-fi is the world of ideas. They can go into another space and do larger thinking to come up with solutions that might not have been used before.  And if the idea fails, so what? It’s not their real world. They are exploring new spaces to get new perspective. 

We offered a class last year where we deconstructed popular sci-fi movies like the Star Wars series and looked at the relationship of food in the worlds of the characters. 

With WaLL-E, it’s a love story between robots, but through the lessons, kids could see it’s actually a crazy commentary on consumer culture. 

Waste360: How does Gen Z think and how do you anticipate that will impact the food industry?

Haupt: Gen Z is soaking up what is going on around them. Meanwhile, the 21st century is showing there is a lot about the food system that will not be able to continue as it has. We are seeing the effects of climate change and have a savvy generation coming up that cares about this. They care about equitable food systems and removing plastics from the food system. 

They are asking a lot of questions and will push back. They will expect transparency. It’s a call to action for the industry to pull back the curtain and get people to understand the food system. The food industry has a 10-year lead before the majority of Gen Z’s become of buying age. Take advantage of that as an opportunity to communicate with them.

Waste360: You say kids care about climate change, but how deeply do they understand food waste’s tie into climate?

They do care and are interested. On TikTok (which draws a lot of youth), the hashtag “food waste” got 16.3 million views in 2021. 

Yet in 2020 there was an intentional food waste meme on that platform. It was a challenge where people were doing funny things to deliberately waste food. Ha ha, I smashed this watermelon. Now I’ll throw it in the trash. So, there’s a contradiction in that they are interested but still have this older relationship with food where it is expendable. 

We know we are looking at supply chain disruptions, and people have to understand there is not always going to be food. There is opportunity and interest. So, bring in educators to talk about large issues around the food system. They can take these complex ideas and develop consumer education or experience design programs for our future consumers. We can help them more fully understand and get them excited. 

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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