The waste-free educator

Karen Brooks-Bauer on instilling Earth-friendly habits

Food Waste Champion

As an early childhood educator and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) teacher in Washington, DC, Karen Brooks-Bauer strives to embed the idea of living sustainably throughout her teaching and school initiatives. She wants to forge strong environmental behaviors in her students from an early age and instill lifelong learning practices so that protecting the planet comes naturally to them.

How did you become an environmental educator?
I studied to be a marine biologist; I really thought I was going to be one. But before jumping to grad school, I stumbled into work, teaching marine biology at camps and schools. It was a natural fit. I wound up in grad school for elementary education focusing on STEAM.

What inspired you to start examining food waste with your class?
In these days of standardized testing, kids have a lot of pressure on them. This is a way that kids can tackle a complex issue they relate to and are intrinsically interested in. They love animals. We’re giving them an opportunity to think critically—and maybe they don’t even realize it’s work.

What are the conservation lessons you’ve learned?
The littlest change to your behavior can make a positive difference, especially where I work. We have 800 children here. If I model a conservation behavior, I’ve got 800 sets of little eyes that may see it and take it up. And teaching about food waste has inspired me in my personal life to do more meal planning and prep (and stick to it), which has cut waste in my home kitchen as well.

What’s one thing you wish we could improve about the food system?
Access to fruits and vegetables in lower-income communities. There’s only one grocery store in my school’s whole ward, and many parents rely on public transportation. It’s the very definition of a food desert. And while many school systems “serve” children food, including items students might not want, my school is becoming an “offer” school, enabling kids to choose their own food. The data we collected as part of this program helped lead to that change.

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