PEI Offers Food Waste and Climate Change Storyline Workshop for Teachers
Despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the United States is also one of the most wasteful. America holds the dubious distinction of throwing away more food than every other nation except Australia, an average of a pound per person each day. In total, 150,000 tons of food gets dumped daily in the U.S., the equivalent of a third of the calories we consume.</p style>
What many may not realize is how those actions contribute to the climate crisis. Now, thanks to an innovative workshop through the Pacific Education Institute (PEI), that may change. In December, 5th-grade teachers and high school teachers from Clark County and surrounding areas explored PEI’s food waste and climate change lesson plans and storyline through a free two-day professional development workshop. PEI is an award-winning statewide organization that helps teachers, schools and districts integrate place-based STEM education into their curriculum.
Funding for the workshop was provided through the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s (OSPI) ClimeTime initiative.
The training offered teachers an opportunity to explore the science using data, hands-on activities, and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), according to PEI’s Lower Columbia Regional Coordinator Chad Mullen. “We spend a good part of the time building teacher capacity,” he explains. “We don’t assume that teachers will arrive having background knowledge of why food waste is worth focusing on or the science behind decomposition and we don’t assume that they’ll come with a diverse background of cultural values around food and waste.”
Participants learned about the tremendous resources that go into food production through seeds, water, energy and land and how to calculate the greenhouse emissions from the food that is thrown away. “Wasted food is a big part of the climactic impact,” says Mullen. “We are providing students an opportunity to understand how individuals, classrooms, and schools can be part of the climate solution.”
Food waste ends up in one of two places: the compost bin or the landfill, both of which are problematic. “If it goes into the compost, the carbon that plant pulled out of the air to make food is all going to decompose and turn back into atmospheric carbon or carbon that’s being held in the soil,” says Mullen. The decomposition process releases CO2, a recognized greenhouse gas.
But that’s not nearly as bad as what happens when food goes into a landfill. In the absence of oxygen, as it breaks down it gets converted into methane, which in the atmosphere is 104 times more destructive than CO2 over a twenty-year time span.
At the workshop, teachers gained tools to help students understand the issue by applying math and science. For example, in one activity they measured how much energy, water and land goes into one pound of milk in a school lunch and how much atmospheric CO2 will be produced if it’s thrown out. “We help teachers understand the tools we’ve gathered for them to use with their students,” says Mullen.
Another central aspect of the workshop is incorporating indigenous perspectives about food and waste. Cinnamon Bear served as PEI’s Tribal Liaison for the western Puget Sound region during the first year they offered the training. “Food waste is a prime example of how we have disconnected from our local environments and the ecosystems that provide the gifts of food and medicines that sustain us,” she says. “It’s something we can all have a very real and important impact on.”
This is the fifth food waste workshop PEI has offered and whenever possible, they include a local tribal elder or leader who can speak to the issue. When that’s not an option, participants view TEDtalks from indigenous leaders and teachers who share their perspectives. Bear says that expanding teachers’ ideas of what constitutes science has been an important first step.
“Giving hands-on, specific experiences is the method I’ve found most successful,” she says. “Having teachers make cordage from nettle, enjoy a traditional meal so they can experience how indigenous communities view food as a gift, or make a salve from cedar during a TEK lesson, all of that makes this knowledge personally relevant and motivating to the teachers who have such important work to do with our youth.”
The workshop also included collaborations with several community partners. Staff from the Clark County Green School shared their work in diverting food out of the waste stream and participants toured the Clark County Food Bank to learn about their strategies to redirect food waste toward those who need it most. Finally, they heard from Josh Hechtman, a 17-year-old high school senior who started Reproduce 81, a club at Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane to send food that would normally be wasted at school home with students who would otherwise go hungry.
The collaborative approach is typical of PEI’s educational model, which brings together schools and districts with conservation groups, resource management companies, and other community leaders to deliver real-world, outdoor-based STEM education rooted in local ecosystems and the industries that have grown around them. Previous workshops have yielded extraordinary results; in Chewelah, after fifth-grade students saw all the food waste they were producing, they produced a breakdown of how much it was costing the district per person – roughly the salary of one full-time teacher.
The class ended up meeting with representatives from the Spokane Tribe and managers from their local Safeway before presenting their findings to Governor Inslee. They also shared their discoveries with an international audience at the annual North American Association for Environmental Education conference.
Mullen and Bear anticipate inspiring results once Clark County teachers begin implementing what they learn in December. “I hope to see teachers and their students come out of this experience with a better understanding of some cultural values that might be different from theirs,” says Mullen, “and for our students from indigenous backgrounds to see themselves represented in the curriculum.”
Bear sees strong potential for young people to take the lead. “I want them to know they were born for this time and have a direct impact in the world we are creating and leaving for our future descendants,” she says. “I hope they realize their power and engage with the world around them with respect and reciprocity.”