Feeding the Future, One Bite at a Time

How we launched a food-waste reduction program in my home state.

As a child, I frequently moved schools within the public system in Montgomery County, Maryland. Every two to three years, I would pack my bags and say my goodbyes before learning the winding hallways of a new school. Yet one thing always remained the same: the mountains of half-eaten sandwiches, apple cores, and even unopened bags of baby carrots that would pile up in trash cans after each lunch period.

I have been privileged to grow up in a family where both of my parents are employed and can put three meals on the table each day. The majority of my peers did not have the same experience. I attended a middle school where over half of all students received free or reduced-price meals. Although the meal program took care of breakfast and lunch, it left students and families to their own devices to find dinner, weekend meals, and snacks in between.

a young person in front of a school

As a 9th grader, Angelina Xu co-founded Compostology, a food waste reduction initiative that has since prevented around 51,000 pounds of food waste at her Maryland highschool.

Seeing trash bags jam-packed with wasted food, ready to rot in landfills, alongside empty lunch boxes, I felt the wrongness of a society that could betray its own students in favor of complacency and inaction. In the 7th grade, I started a composting and food recovery program, hoping to reduce climate change and increase food security.

In the 9th grade, I founded the initiative Compostology with my classmate, Advika Agarwal. We chose to focus on food waste in schools because empirical evidence shows that people learn new habits and adhere to them best when they are taught in their early childhood. With schools as the premier institution dedicated to guiding students through society, we knew that we would be able to reach thousands of students at once while also diverting tens of thousands of pounds of food waste each year. Advika and I co-led programs and managed teams of student volunteers to help during lunch. We worked to educate our fellow students and encourage them to think twice about every item of food they picked up.

Students responded with enthusiasm and dedication to announcements asking them to take only as much food as they would eat and to compost what they could not consume. We also provided “share tables,” where students could leave any unopened food they didn’t plan on keeping, for the benefit of other students and local food banks.

These programs have prevented around 51,000 pounds of food waste and its methane emissions from reaching incinerators — the equivalent of diverting some 214,000 pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere. In addition, our share tables are rescuing an average of 8,960 items of food for donation each month. Montgomery County now offers share tables to any school that wants them.

As we continued expanding, however, we had more schools wanting to join than we could accommodate with our budget. So, over my sophomore year, Compostology worked with Maryland State Delegate Lorig Charkoudian and State Sen. Shelly Hettleman to co-write SB124, a state bill dedicating $1.25 million over five years for 100 schools to start their own composting and food-recovery programs.

To encourage its passage, we started a postcards campaign to help students tell their legislators why food waste matters to them. Through training calls, late night package drop-offs, and incessant spreadsheet management, we received postcards from all ages: kindergartners with pictures of wildlife and humans living in harmony, high schoolers with confessions on how our food donations had assisted their family’s food security, and more.

Our efforts came to fruition when we spent five hours in Annapolis presenting the work of thousands of students to the Maryland lieutenant governor, the secretary of environment, and rooms of state legislators and their aides. They funded our programs.

We as a society often live by the saying, Out of sight, out of mind. It’s easier to pay someone else to make your food waste disappear than dig deep into what they’re actually doing with it. Making substantial climate change commitments requires us to question whether common practices in our homes, schools, and workplaces are contrary to sustaining our world.

So, I would ask that you question every part of your daily routine, no matter how normalized or minuscule it may seem, to see if there’s change to be made. Because it is from there that we can bring about change on a societal level.

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