One day, a month into the 2015 school year, my six-year old son came up to me in the kitchen, and this is how the conversation went:
Max: “Mom, I have to throw away the milk at lunchtime every day.”
Me: “What milk? You don’t even drink milk” (He has never liked plain milk).
Max: “The milk that they give me at lunchtime”
Me: “Ok. Just say ‘no thank you’ next time”
Max: “I did, but I still have to put it on my tray when I get my food”.
Me: “Really? So you have to take the milk every day at lunchtime? Then what?”
Max: “Then I eat my food and throw everything else out, including the milk carton, which I didn’t open”
I admit I was skeptical. This was not something we would ever do at home, and it would go against the what we would want to teach our children about valuing food and taking care of the earth. Could it really be happening on a daily basis at school? And if my kid is doing this, how many other kids might be doing it too?
So I checked with our assistant principal. It was true. She was equally disturbed by all the waste this was causing, but these decisions are not made by the individual schools, but rather by the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Office of Nutrition. So we checked with them to better understand the reasons. Essentially, what we were told made sense: that all PK-5th grade students are served an entire meal for breakfast and lunch, which must include all components: grain, protein, fruit, vegetables, and milk. The intention is to ensure that students are exposed to healthy foods, and by having it in front of them they are more likely to take a bite of something nutritious. It also made it easier for schools serving many students over a busy lunch period to make sure the line moves more quickly, rather than having elementary school children take their time to pick and choose what they want. Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of this model is the amount of food that gets wasted. The people we spoke to at DCPS recognized this problem and provided helpful suggestions such as implementing a “share table” where kids can leave unwanted items on a table which another child might like to have.
It was Christmas 2015, and I had just seen a presentation at my work by a charity called Healthy Babies, which helps at-risk D.C. families have healthy babies. I was so moved by the work they do, including providing meals and teaching healthy ways of cooking to expecting mothers. I asked where they get their food from and was told that they rely a lot on donations. There had to be a way to get the unused milk to those who needed it, whether it was Healthy Babies or another charity. But how?
I discussed the possibilities with our wonderful staff at the school, including the administration, the dedicated staff who work in the cafeteria, and teachers who were volunteering their time to work on sustainability issues. Naturally there were a few concerns. The main, and most common concern, was that the school could get sued if someone gets sick from the donated food. Fortunately, that has never happened, and thanks to the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, no food donor can be sued when donating food in good faith. A simple Google search led me to discover this.
The school staff were incredibly quick to take action. The school was participating in a recycling and compost program, which meant that one of the teachers had taken on the task of conducting a baseline survey at the end of the lunch period. I joined her on one of the days for the survey and we helped the kids sort through trash, recycling, compost, and we put aside the unopened milk cartons, untouched oranges, apples, unopened crackers and other odds and ends. At the end of the lunch period we had collected 67 cartons of milk and over 30 pieces of fruit and packages of crackers. In one day. Let’s multiply this by five days a week. Now let’s multiply this by all the schools in DC.
After a dinner with friends one evening where I couldn’t stop talking about this issue, one of my friends came across an article about MEANS database. So on the same day I was helping to do the baseline survey at the school, I later went to meet with the founders of MEANS. Knowing that those 67 cartons of milk were going to be wasted, I put the box in my car and decided to test out how the MEANS database worked. We stored the milk in the fridge, entered the information about the available milk in the database and waited to see if a charity would claim it. After I left that meeting, I learned that the milk had been claimed by a DC shelter. After that I could not imagine ever throwing away more milk. In addition to feeding people who need it, it could save charities a lot of money.
Wheeling the new cooler to school
We signed up the school to the MEANS database, and our family donated a cooler which my children wheeled over to the school one morning. Now, twice a week after lunch, a local charity picks up the milk from just outside the school where the cooler is placed. Currently, the local charity is Miriam’s Kitchen. And we are so thrilled to have partnered with them as our “Sister Charity”. What if every school could have a “Sister Charity” that could pick up the un-used food every day? We would really like to explore this possibility with any school that is interested.
In 2016 I joined the newly formed DC Food Recovery Working Group, and found out that they were helping the DC Department of General Services (DGS) develop guidance for schools to donate unused food. As part of the Working Group, I learned about how much is being done on legislation to allow food donations, tax credits for restaurants that donate food, new apps, including one called Food Rescue US that allows you to donate your leftover food by helping to transport it, among many other creative initiatives such as community fridges.
I know I am not alone when I say that I do not want to teach my children that throwing perfectly good food in the trash is okay. Many people are hungry and really need the food. In 2015 there were 13.1 million children living in food-insecure households, and yet up to 40% of our food ends up in landfills every year in the United States. Food waste breaks down and generates methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas that has a warming potential of 21 times that of carbon dioxide (Source: EPA). Then there is the water and land used to grow and produce the food in the first place. Eighty percent of all U.S. freshwater consumption is dedicated to the production and distribution of food. The implications are big.
The good news is that awareness is increasing, with universities and organizations all over the country coming up with innovative ways to tackle this massive challenge. In the District of Columbia, other schools are either starting to divert good food from the trash bin, or asking how it can be done. We know that there is a problem with over-ordering food, which leads to waste in the first place, but we are tackling one problem at a time. Wouldn’t it be nice if official guidance could be provided to any school that is asking if and how this can be done? That’s why I am so happy that the “Save the Good Food Amendment Act of 2017” is being put forward to the DC City Council. It will open up many more possibilities to make sure good food does not get wasted. If this bill is passed, then the Department of Health will provide a food donation guide for everyone, including schools. We hope you can help support this bill!
Parent at School Without Walls at Francis Stevens