Hungarian authorities have revealed that local households throw away twice as much food as previously estimated. The trend raises environmental concerns when extrapolated to other countries in the region. Far from returning to the ground it comes from, waste food pollutes Europe’s air, rivers and soils. As part of the LIFE-funded FOODWASTEPREV project, teachers and officials are now chalking up lesson plans to keep tomorrow’s food on our plates and out of our bins.

Until recently, international studies have focused on the refuse produced by a handful of particularly wasteful countries. Consumers in Ireland, the Netherlands and Germany notoriously throw away more than their own weight in edible food each year. Based on GDP per capita, experts have long assumed that Central and Eastern European countries such as Hungary squander much less food.

Data challenges received wisdom

Field measurements are now challenging this wisdom. As part of the LIFE FOODWASTEPREV project, Dr. Gyula Kasza from Hungary’s Food Chain Safety Office has kept records of what is being thrown out by 100 households from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. To boost the accuracy of the study, test subjects have adopted survey techniques optimised by FUSIONS, a Horizon 2020 project that has written up guidelines to calculate food waste across statistically representative samples. Using kitchen scales, measurement glasses and log books, participants tracked their groceries and scraps in fine detail over determined intervals, allowing Hungary’s Food Chain Safety Office to work out how much of it was binned over the year.

“We were shocked when we found out,” said Dr. Kasza. “Hungarians waste on average 70 kilograms of food a year.” He originally found the economic estimate of 39 kilograms per person suspiciously low, but the numbers recorded in FOODWASTEPREV log books proved almost twice as high as values assumed in previous models.

Teaching thrift

To break these bad habits, Dr. Kasza has called on teachers for help. He expects that schools can influence the one segment of society capable of cutting Hungary’s growing flow of waste. “Most adults already know which actions waste food, but they are stuck in bad routines,” said Dr. Kasza. “That’s not the case for children.” He points out that 8 to 12-year olds understand the concept of food waste, but have not yet translated conscious decisions into behaviour patterns. “Humans develop routines later in life,” said Dr. Kasza. “If we can reach consumers at an early age, LIFE FOODWASTEPREV could transmit good habits to future generations in ways that have struggled to work with their parents.”

Teachers in seven schools across Hungary have already tested lessons and classroom activities designed by the LIFE-funded project to explain the basics of saving food to young audiences. “Pupils were very happy to have this issue put on the table,” said Dr. Kasza. “Sometimes, when we asked a question, the entire class started waving their hand to answer.” Being used to interacting with distracted adults, he finds great joy in working with teachers and children.

The feedback from schools has also helped the government agency write an educational e-book, complete with slides and exercises for the classroom. This learning pack is being reviewed by Hungary’s national teacher organisation and will be released in September 2018.

Winner, winner

“To encourage pupils to make the most of the material, we will soon invite them to a nation-wide competition,” said Dr. Kasza. As of next year, FOODWASTEPREV will quiz some 5000 schoolchildren on what they know about saving food. Winning classes will enjoy a summer holiday in a sustainability camp. The competition is open to schools across Hungary, and its educational material will be translated into English and made available to teachers everywhere.

To raise awareness on the scale needed to change public attitudes, Hungary’s Food Chain Safety Office has promised to renew the competition each year. When asked if this campaign will be sufficient to change deeply entrenched routines, Dr. Kasza is optimistic. He points out that modern attitudes are already changing. Attention to food waste has historically followed periods of scarcity and hunger. This is not the case today. A new generation is discovering the quality and origin of the food they buy. The market they represent remains minor, but environmental issues are starting to influence consumer choice.

Source: EU LIFE