“Ooh, ahh, the Ort Report,
I said a-ooh, ahh, Ort Report,
Shakey shakey shakey…”

(Repeat twice, and don’t forget to swish your hands in the air during the jiggy part.)

This song’s goal is simple: reminding us to just eat enough. Not so little that we are hungry still after a meal, but not so much that we generate waste. – The Ort Report

You’ve probably heard the tired adage, “Don’t waste food! There are starving kids in Africa!” On the few occasions that I’ve directed this toward someone, the responses have been of resignation at best, and apathy at worst. In my personal experience, using this tactic to guilt people, especially children, is not likely to work. However, during my time working as a teacher at Nature’s Classroom, an outdoor/environmental education company, I came across another, more successful, approach to curb food waste, and to instill a conservation ethic from an early age: ort reports

Outline ▸ Orts, Morsels & ScrapsThe Milk MonsterAll the Water in the WorldGiant Floating Garbage IslandsThrowing Money AwayFindingsTakeawayReferences & Further Reading

Orts, Morsels & Scraps

But first what is Ort? Ort is defined as morsels left from a meal. In short, that’s a food scrap. And the mission of an ort report is simple: cultivating an understanding of the implication of our food waste, and how simple it is to curb it.

At every end of our meals during the week that we hosted the students, we would collect the wasted food. We would dump that ort into a bucket in the middle of the dining hall. We would then weigh and graph the ort from the meals throughout the week. Depending on the size of the group, which ranged all the way from 20-200 students, a typical first meal’s ort total could weigh in from 10-15 pounds, although I once saw it exceeds 20 pounds (for a group of roughly 120 people).

Following every meal, one of the Nature’s Classroom teachers would also lead an Ort Report (a brief talk on conservation). Those reports were largely centered around internalizing the externalities associated with food production.

I have selected several of our most popular Ort Reports to discuss here, in the hopes that others interested in fostering a conservation ethic in children might find them useful. I will also share some observations about the types of schools that had the most success with reducing their ort totals, and which struggled the most.

The Milk Monster

Those of us living in a Western society now live in a world where the process of obtaining food is as simple as going to the store, buying it, bringing it home, cooking it, and eating or drinking it.

From the perspective of a child, this process could be as simple as being given a plate of food. With no role in the food’s production, it is understandable that a child would not appreciate the amount of energy required to produce the food or the gravity of throwing it away. Our Ort Report on milk production sought to bring this to the students’ attention.

The teacher giving the report would break down the process of making milk to eight separate components [Ref]:

  1. Rearing the cows, which itself has quite a large carbon footprint, considering the methane emissions that come from cows. There is also a large land footprint associated with rearing cows. Not to mention the enormous amount of water to hydrate both the cows and the grass.
  2. Harvesting the milk, which is typically done by machines these days.
  3. Storing the milk, which involves cooling it to 39˚F, and constantly agitating it for the two days that it is stored.
  4. Transporting the milk, which at this point typically involves fossil fuels for transportation. Some milk doesn’t even make it this far- tankers vet milk based on sight, smell, and temperature. You can use this to make a point about how there’s already waste inherent in the production of milk. What they’re served is the very best milk that the dairy farm could produce; it makes throwing it away that much more wasteful.
  5. Lab Testing the milk for antibiotics, bacteria, and other stuff once it gets to the factory. Unsatisfactory milk is rejected at this stage. Again, this is used to talk about waste inherent in milk production.
  6. Processing, which involves pasteurization, homogenization, etc. and takes energy to heat and cool milk.
  7. Packaging, that is about filling and sealing that milk into paper cartons or plastic jugs, and packaging those cartons and jugs into larger movable bulks for transport.
  8. Selling that involves again transportation to the stores, refrigeration of the milk until it’s bought, transported in our car from the store to our house and back to a refrigerator (our own) until we finally consume it unless we forget about it and therefore end up wasting it…

This report would come at the first breakfast of the week; i.e. the morning after the school arrived. At this point, they would have already received two ort talks from the previous day’s lunch and dinner, and generally would have had a lower ort total during the dinner. They would, therefore, be surprised to see their ort total rise for the following meal and begin to realize that they had a lot left to learn about how to reduce their ort.

This formula for an Ort Report is pretty versatile; I’ve seen it customized for potatoes, maple syrup, and any other food item that was prominent at a particular meal. This also lends itself to student participation, because you can call on students to act out each step. After the first few steps, this approach leads to a lot of wide-eyed students wondering “how much longer can this chain go on for?” which helps drive home the point of the talk- up until then, they’ve been wasting milk (and other food items) without having any idea how much energy goes into its production- in a sense, the amount of virtual energy stored in that food item.

Using milk as the subject of this Ort Report, in particular, has an added advantage, in that you can use it to bring up the idea of a milk buddy, or a butter buddy. If the students don’t think they need a whole carton of milk or serving of butter, they can split it with a peer, and keep waste to a minimum. This then furthers the idea of being conscientious when taking food items and being mindful of food waste.

All the Water in the World

Freshwater makes up a very small fraction of all water on the planet. While nearly 70 percent of the world is covered by water, only 2.5 percent of it is fresh… | Source: Freshwater Crisis (National Geographic)

Another approach to an ort discussion that we would commonly follow was to talk about a resource and then put into perspective how limited it is. Typically, we would juxtapose something like the percentage of drinkable water in the world, versus the total amount of water on Earth. This method also works for juxtaposing the amount of arable land in the world against all of the lands on Earth. In both cases, the actual percentages of available water/land are less than 1%. This is the approach we took:

For water, take two water pitchers. One is full to the brim, and one is empty. Bring a volunteer from the audience up, and tell them that you’re going to have them drink all the water in the world, represented by the water in the pitcher. Every time they almost start to drink, say “wait! stop!” and ask the other students for an example of water that is not drinkable. The most significant, of course, are the oceans and ice caps; for these, you pour out the majority of water into the spare pitcher. Talk about the percentage of water that’s in the oceans (97%) and of the remaining freshwater locked up in ice (~20%); already we’re down to less than 3% of the world’s water. Get examples of water from students of other undrinkable water (i.e. polluted water, inaccessible groundwater, water in living beings, water that we divert for other uses, etc.). Keep pouring a little bit of the water out at a time until you have just a few drops left in the pitcher, to represent all the drinkable water in the world. At this point, give the pitcher to the student to drink from.

This demonstration drives home that the amount of drinkable water in the world is not unlimited, and can serve as a jumping-off point for talking about water shortages in other countries. To make it more concrete, I would always point out how our particular drinking water source was Lake George which, given our location, was always in plain sight. Not having a drinking water source was really just as simple as Lake George being contaminated, in which case, we couldn’t just get water out of the faucet. As far as the students were concerned, this was an argument for them to not throw away water at meals, and to even use the leftover water to fill up their water bottles at the end of the meals.

For food, you have an apple, and you ask the students where it’s not possible to grow food. (Oceans, deserts, tundra, etc). For each example, take a bite out of the skin corresponding roughly to the size of the area of the place referenced. By the end, you end up with a tiny shred of skin- less than 1% of the planet’s surface area for growing food. The lesson is that we don’t have an unlimited amount of resources to produce food, and we need to be as efficient and mindful as possible- take care of the land that we do have, but also keep food waste to a minimum- otherwise, that land and a ton of resources are just going toward producing and distributing food that no one eats.

Giant Floating Garbage Islands

As the week progressed, we would typically expand from focusing on food conservation to discussing other environmental issues, so as to expand the sense of a conservation ethic to a planetary level. The most frequent example we gave to assist us in doing so was the gigantic floating mass of garbage in the Pacific Ocean.

Because of the nature of ocean gyres, this garbage patch tends to rotate and aggregate more debris as time goes on. We would demonstrate this problem by starting with a few students, having them continuously walk in a small circle, and then “pull” other students in, who would then circle in the alternate direction.

This report often accomplishes a few key goals:

  • it gets the students to expand their newly formed conservation ethic to think about conservation on a larger scale
  • it introduces the concept of a positive feedback loop; the indirect consequences of negatively impacting the planet’s well-being can very well transcend the direct action from humans that caused the initial impact, and
  • it starts to chip away at the concept of throwing anything “away”. We would tell the students that when they dispose of an item, especially inappropriately, it doesn’t cease to exist. Eventually, it will find its way down to the ocean, where it will become a problem for anything living in the ocean.

Altogether these concepts help with the idea of a ripple effect that humans have unwittingly had on their environment for millennia and encourage the students to think about their own impact on the environment.

■ ■ ■

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Ben Segall)

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is located in the Northern Pacific is an island of marine debris, believed to have been collected by the North Pacific Gyre

Throwing Money Away

With all these talks about conserving natural resources, it stands to reason that we might discuss conserving our economic resources too.

One of my colleagues decided to take a slightly different approach and discuss the money wasted as a result of throwing food away.

She would begin with a seemingly innocuous question: What would you do with an extra $2000? The students would volunteer answers such as, plan a trip abroad, buy some new expensive toys or gadgets, visit their family across the country. My colleague would then make the point that the average American family wastes around $2000 in the form of food waste every year because people buy food that doesn’t get eaten. We would then empty the ort bucket a little at a time into the garbage, and have the students say “cha-ching!” every time a scrap of food fell out of the bucket, to aid memorizing of the lesson.

Although children don’t have as much knowledge about what or how much to buy, or how to efficiently use ingredients as a chef might, they can control their portion sizes and can try a taste of a food before taking a portion at all. We did this lesson nearly every week because even if our more abstract reports about conservation did not stick, we had a lesson about something much more tangible to our audience.


Our visiting schools over the season were quite diverse; so were the results from our Ort Reports. The vast majority of schools responded well to our lessons, and we would typically see at least a 75% reduction in ort over the course of the week.

Interestingly, the two exceptions were schools that came from a lower socioeconomic background, with one of the communities having admirably put together a scholarship fund to ensure that the students could come. The ort totals from these schools fluctuated slightly, but ultimately had no significant reduction over the course of the week.

So, why was this? The only major way in which these two schools differed from our other visiting schools was that, for many of the students, there was less money to go around at home. Unlike the meal setups that these students were probably accustomed to, ours was buffet-style. With no hard-and-fast rule on how much they could take, I expect that the first instinct of many was to put a lot of food on their plate, even if it was more than they could realistically eat. For someone who is more used to having to think about how much food will be available later, this is an understandable response. However, it does make for a challenge when trying to help students in this situation develop a conservation ethic. If this is correct, I expect that, had our meals been with set portions, ort would not have been as much of an issue for these groups.

The other curious finding was that two schools stood out with how little ort they had at the beginning of the week; both initial ort totals were around five pounds, compared to the 10-15 pound norm seen with other schools. These schools were the French American School of New York and the Lycée Français of New York. One of these schools reduced their ort to less than a fourth of a pound, and the other managed to hit “zort” (zero ort) for one of their meals –the only time it ever happened for a typically-sized group. A majority of students in both school groups had either spent a significant amount of time in France or were children of French expats living in New York City (the majority spoke French as a first language, despite generally being conversant in English as well.) I don’t mean to single out France here, but it is interesting to consider that the only two groups with comparatively little food waste at the beginning of the week were also the only two groups that had a majority non-American background and cultural influence growing up.

Why might this be? A 2003 study by psychologist Paul Rozin (et al.) revealed that the portion size for an American meal is, on average 25% greater than that of a comparable French meal. The students from these schools may have grown up accustomed to taking smaller portions, which left them more able to finish more of their food in the allotted meal time. This difference speaks to one other point: that we would always remind our students that seconds are always available if one is still hungry after finishing a smaller portion. This ensures that one gets enough to eat, and that food waste is kept to a minimum.


From working with children of varying ages and backgrounds, I have learned that instilling a conservation ethic at an early age needs to be a multi-pronged approach. All of the approaches that I have outlined here worked for some groups of students, but none worked for all. Such is the case with any environmental problem, though; it is usually more efficacious to develop a series of smaller solutions to the same problem than to search for one elusive panacea. Developing an ethic is no different.

As to what we can do at an individual level? A lot, starting with playing the ‘Ort game’ right at home: Establishing an Ort report routine with our family; Name the receiving bin, the ‘Ort bin’. Keep a familial ‘Ort journal’. Reduce your portions. In no time you’ll also get an eye about cooking the right amount of food. Compost what you can’t keep, finding satisfaction in seeing the regular waste and the compost bins getting filled less and less, ever more slowly. Don’t forget to celebrate your Zort moments (those days where you achieved a zero-waste meal). Last but not least: share the (Ort) word too!

References & Further Reading

America’s $165 billion food-waste problem — Americans waste 35 million tons of food a year. (CNBC 2015)

How Milk Gets from the Cow to the Store (Procon.org)

Freshwater Crisis (National Geographic Reference) — There is the same amount of freshwater on earth as there always has been, but the population has exploded, leaving the world’s water resources in crisis.

The Ecology of Eating — Smaller Portion Sizes in France Than in the United States Help Explain the French Paradox by Rozin, P., Kabnick, K., Pete, E. & al (2003) PMID: 12930475 DOI: 10.1111/1467-9280.02452

March 1st 2018 | by Nathan Van Meter

The photos in this article are either published under a creative commons license, labeled for non-commercial reuse (with or without modification) or are directly linked to their source.

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