Originally published March 9, 2017.
Day after day, Jill Morrow watched as untouched bananas, sealed cartons of milk and other perfectly good food filled the trash cans in the Lincoln Elementary School cafeteria.
When she heard about a way to save that food, she was in.
The bounty now goes to the Love In the Name of Christ food pantry through Food Rescue, a program launched locally by the Huntington County Health and Wellness Coalition.
Lincoln and Flint Springs elementary schools are piloting the program, which was supposed to have begun in March. But Morrow, the kitchen manager at Lincoln, didn’t want to wait that long.
“Jill was really eager,” says Kelley Miller, Love INC’s food pantry coordinator. “She started right away.”
Miller picked up her first load of food from Lincoln on Feb. 17. That first day, Miller took 95 pounds of food back to the food pantry.
Morrow was happy to see it get used.
“This is stuff that would have gotten thrown away,” she says.
Since then, Miller has picked up leftover food from Lincoln twice a week, taking anywhere from 90 to 220 pounds of food back with her each time.
“And that’s just from one school,” Morrow notes.
The first pickup from Flint Springs, on March 3, yielded 275 pounds of food.
The food is taken back to Love INC and placed on a “free table.” People who visit the food pantry on a regular basis can take whatever they want from the table and a nearby cooler. The area regularly features fruit and vegetables, milk, juice, cereal, cheese sticks, sandwiches and more, all from the school cafeterias.
“Everybody who comes through will pick up at least a couple of things,” Miller says.
At the end of the day, she adds, there’s rarely anything left.
“All this will be gone this afternoon,” Miller said of the food she picked up on March 3.
Back at Lincoln, Morrow says she serves about 200 breakfasts and 400 lunches each day.
At lunch time, she says, federal guidelines require that “kids have to take a main (entree) and one fruit or vegetable, whether they eat it or not.”
And any parent will tell you that kids sometimes just won’t eat it. That’s when the food, untouched, ends up in the cafeteria trash cans.
Unopened cartons of milk, Morrow says, would be opened and drained before the cartons were thrown away. Untouched fresh fruit, prewrapped cheese sticks and sandwiches in sealed packages got tossed.
“Anything that leaves this kitchen cannot be reused in this kitchen,” she explains.
Whatever the students don’t eat, Morrow says, can’t be resold. It has to be either thrown away or donated.
The Health and Wellness Coalition, a coalition of local agencies focusing on obesity, drugs and alcohol, stepped in to facilitate the donation of the food.
Once the coalition explained Food Rescue to the Lincoln staff, a cart was placed by the dish room at one end of the Lincoln cafeteria, allowing students to turn in unopened food they chose not to eat.
“They know it’s going to Love and they put it on the cart,” Morrow says.
Their actions do more than just help the hungry, says Susy Jennings, a member of the Health and Wellness Coalition.
“It’s important, I think, that we’re teaching our children that food is valuable,” Jennings says. “They can help feed people who need it, and they’re saving the environment.”
Ken Akins, director of food service for the Huntington County Community Schools, is also a member of the Health and Wellness Coalition and backed the program, Miller says.
“There is a law that protects the schools from any kind of liability,” Jennings says.
Over a recent three days, Lincoln students turned in a variety of food items plus about 100 containers of juice and 150 cartons of milk.
That food ends up in the kitchens of a cross section of local families.
“You have anywhere from Seniors to people with babies” taking the cafeteria food home with them, says Jennings, the community wellness coordinator with the Purdue Extension nutrition education program.
Miller says the Love INC food pantry serves 450 to 500 households a month.
“Food insecurity in Huntington County is a little over 13 percent, which translates out to 4,000 to 5,000 people,” Jennings adds.
Connecting those people with schools and restaurants that had food going to waste was what prompted Noblesville resident John Williamson to found Food Rescue in 2007. Initially, he partnered with several restaurants to donate unused food to food banks.
Now, Food Rescue serves as a conduit to connect food banks across Indiana with schools and restaurants in their communities. More than 350 Hoosier schools have joined the program.
The Food Rescue program can be expanded to include any number of other Huntington County schools, Miller says, as long as there are volunteers willing to pick up the food and deliver it to Love INC. Interested volunteers can contact Kyle Metzger, Love INC’s operations manager, at 356-0933.
More information about Food Rescue is available at www.k12foodrescue.com.