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Kids in Los Angeles fight climate change by tackling food waste at school


U.N. climate talks are wrapping up in Dubai. Some of the conversation there has focused on how to get young people to be part of the larger solution to climate change. An answer to that question can be found outside a school cafeteria in Los Angeles. Caleigh Wells from member station KCRW has this report.

CALEIGH WELLS, BYLINE: One year ago, the kids at a private K-8 school in Los Angeles called the Wesley School started to fill these 5-foot-tall containers with food waste - an unfinished burrito, the rejected side of carrots.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Happy birthday to you.

WELLS: This is their first-ever harvesting ceremony, and they're pretty excited for the big reveal.

STEVEN WYNBRANDT: Want to crack this baby open and see what we got in here?


WELLS: Local farmer-turned-composting-consultant Steven Wynbrandt has taught the teachers and students how to do this.

WYNBRANDT: What I want to ask you is, what does this smell like?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Oh, it smells earthy.

WYNBRANDT: It smells earthy.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: It doesn't stink.


WELLS: More than 5,000 pounds of food waste has been turned into compost so far. The kids already know why composting is good for the climate, thanks to their science teacher, Joanna (ph) Hampton-Walker.

JOHNNA HAMPTON-WALKER: Because if it goes in the landfill, it's just more production of methane.

WELLS: And methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases that warms the planet. LA's answer to that problem is its new organics recycling bins. It's easier to let the city whisk the food waste away to an industrial compost facility, but that's not the point, says Hampton-Walker.

HAMPTON-WALKER: When it's invisible like that, they don't see it. They know, but it doesn't sink in.

WELLS: So when sixth grader Finn saw the finished compost pile...

FINN: That's my orange chicken in there.

WELLS: ...It sank in.

FINN: Oh, my God, that's my food. Like, that's not just like any food. Somewhere in there is my food.

WELLS: Fifth grader Kingston felt better seeing his food waste turn into rich soil and put around plants on campus.

KINGSTON: It feels good that, like, you're doing something to help the planet instead of just sitting and watching it, like, get destroyed.

WELLS: And a small group of fifth graders would meet every Wednesday to clean and prepare the food waste. Sloane was one of them. She felt so inspired...

SLOANE: We did a lemonade stand at our friend's house, and we made over $200, and we donated it to the NRDC, which is the National - or...

WELLS: The Natural Resources Defense Council.

SLOANE: ...Defense Council. Yeah.

WELLS: Sloane also helped create a petition to replace the plastic forks and spoons in the school cafeteria with compostable ones. Jennifer Silverstein says this composting program checks a lot of the boxes for effective, positive climate education. She's a therapist, a social worker, and part of the Climate Psychology Alliance of North America.

JENNIFER SILVERSTEIN: It's like all these horrible things are happening, and there's all these adults out there who are really actively trying to make it better. And here's ways you can participate.

WELLS: Silverstein says part of helping kids understand the gravity of climate change is to build their window of tolerance by allowing them to move around outside and join adults in helping the planet.

SILVERSTEIN: They also get a taste of, like, this is what it feels like to do good action in groups.

WELLS: For some students at the Wesley School, like Leo, the compost isn't just inspiring action, but inspiring hope.

LEO: Knowing I'm a part of something good just helps me sleep at night, and, like, helps me know that if we can just work together, everything is going to work out fine.

WELLS: For NPR News, I'm Caleigh Wells in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Caleigh Wells

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