The U.S. Agriculture Department has found an upside to all those "healthy" school lunches that students refuse to eat: It says schools can use the plate waste as a "learning opportunity" to turn young students into "civic-minded, community-conscious adults."
A blog on the USDA website explains that an elementary school in Northern Virginia is now donating untouched food to a local food pantry.
"The school’s Eco Team, run by sixth graders, ensures their fellow students are putting waste into the correct bin," the blog says.
"The team then collects, weighs, categorizes, and places the food to be donated into separate refrigerators, provided by the Food Bus, a non-profit organization that works with schools to donate food that would otherwise go to waste.
"At the end of the week, PTA members or community volunteers deliver the food to the local food pantry."
USDA says the 12 schools that worked with the Virginia-based Food Bus in the last school year provided 13,502 pounds of food to local pantries. The donations included packaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bananas and apples, yogurt, string cheese, containers of apple sauce and sliced peaches, granola bars, and cartons of milk.
According to USDA, "Food waste and recovery is also incorporated into science lesson plans."
And Food Bus founder Kathleen Weil was quoted as saying that children "are not only learning how to not throw away their food and add it to the national waste stream, but they’re learning that it can be used by someone who is hungry. They are getting a little spark of community service now that may have an impact in their life and the lives of the many people around them when they are adults."
The USDA says schools can reduce plate waste with simple rule changes, such as serving lunch after recess; giving vegetables appealing names, such as "creamy corn"; and establishing a "healthy options only" convenience line.
"By implementing these ideas, schools play a vital role in scaling back the amount of food taking up precious landfill space. More importantly, if a school uses food waste as a learning opportunity, it instills better habits in our young people and produces more civic-minded, community-conscious adults."
The blog also quotes Anne Rosenbaum, a elementary school science specialist, as saying that some students "really have an affinity" for food donation.
"They want to go to the food pantry to see how it works. Their parents call in to help volunteer because the kids are so interested. We laugh because our Eco Team and Eco Patrols get blue rubber gloves so that if they find people who have thrown something in the wrong bin they can put it in the right one. They take their jobs really seriously.”
The USDA says it takes around six months to set up a food recovery program, and it is urging urges schools to share their food recovery stories by joining the "U.S. Food Waste Challenge."
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