After a presentation Charlotte gave to our local United Way, the director remarked to me on how she wished there was something her organization could do about the food problem in our community. Like many community members, I was aware of periodic canned food drives, holiday meals, and the occasional donation one could make at a grocery store checkout, but her comment revealed these initiatives were not meeting this community need.
Unsure of a solution, I searched online for models and found a perishable food-garnering program active in over 100 schools in Tampa Bay, Florida. The program, started by David Levitt as part of his bar mitzvah preparation, received its inspiration from USA Harvest, which originated in Kentucky. I talked with David’s mother, staff at Tampa Bay schools and Tampa Bay Harvest, and with staff at other perishable food–reclamation programs in Atlanta and Kansas City.
With materials from these programs in hand and a group of college students I was leading in a course entitled “The Human Spirit in Action: Service Learning,” we began to organize replication in our community. Working with corporate food service, restaurants, two colleges, and our public schools, and adapting to overcome significant challenges, we created a comprehensive service learning program: Food2Share. The basic outline of how Food2Share works in a K–12 district-wide model is as follows:
- Students learn what foods can be donated and those that must be thrown out. (For example, unopened bags of chips or carrot sticks are acceptable, but opened ones are not.)
- Coolers near waste collection areas in school cafeterias allow students to separate food for donation from waste.
- Food collected goes to food banks that weigh and record it and report back to the schools.
- In addition to food contributed by students, food service leftovers frozen in good-quality, gallon-freezer bags become a major contribution to food banks. While food-service personnel work to reduce excess food, they can’t always predict food consumption. They, however, can freeze leftovers for volunteer transport to the food bank.
The joint efforts of students and staff create community bonding that affects morale in the school environment; everyone is able to find a role in solution making. This is how the service learning structure played out in the college course:
The preparation phase involved researching materials that were integral to the design of other models:
- EPA: Food Donation: Feed Families, Not Landfills www.epa.gov
- Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act www.feedingamerica.org
- USDA: A Citizen’s Guide to Food Recovery www.usda.gov
- Food service guidelines from the Tampa Bay–area public schools
The director of our local food bank discussed the materials and models we had found in class. He was so inspired by the possibilities the students were bringing to help solve the problem of food insecurity that he wanted to work with the students and began attending the class. I realized my students were functioning as volunteer staff furthering his problem-solving efforts.
The goal in the beginning stages was to replicate food service donations as done in Tampa Bay–area schools: when the last student is served, food service staff freezes excess food in good-quality freezer bags until transport by parent volunteers. A meeting with a representative from our department of health confirmed Tampa Bay’s food service guidelines.
Some of my students approached the college’s food service director, who conferred with the corporate office and scheduled a meeting with kitchen staff, who were eager to help. They offered suggestions to create work flow for this component. An e-mail to all professors quickly produced a volunteer pool for transport. One student created a volunteer schedule and an e-mail distribution list among the volunteers to sustain communication and food transportation. Excess prepared food from the college kitchen began to flow to our food bank.
Some students solicited restaurants, and the owner of one exceeded their expectations. Elena’s Sweet Indulgence was a small café that served salads, warm entrees, bread, and desserts, and its owner started donating leftovers at the end of each day that she put in individual serving–size microwavable containers. When the food bank director learned of her contribution, he told the students the food was potentially lifesaving, as many older residents were not inspired to make meals of canned food, while this food was appetizing.
Other students approached the public school food service with the food service donation model from Tampa Bay schools. The director of our public school food service committed to the project after conferring with the K–12 department at the corporate office. Everything was set to go for the following fall in our public schools, including a donation of freezer bags from a store.
Change, a real-life element, jostled the project when our public school food service director retired that summer. A new class of first-year students was ready to build on the work of the previous year’s students, but the new public school food service director for our community informed us that the program could not happen. Our public schools happened to be under contract with the same corporate entity as our college food service; this corporation had separate offices for different areas of service. Although the corporate college food service department supported the project, as did the corporate community relations office, the individual in charge of the corporate K–12food service would not support the project and aggressively took steps to shut down our efforts.
We were never able to get this component off the ground in our public schools. We could find no difference between the college and public school kitchens, as staff trained in food handling were operating both. Our college food service continued to make regular donations, but my students were predictably dismayed by what they perceived to be poor role modeling in the adult professional world and that a single individual could block the logical and positive flow of giving from so many to those in need.
Nonetheless, I was working with youth—resilient college students—who were pursuing a course in service learning. We had an agenda to problem solve. Despite this one stumbling block, we still had support in the community; everyone involved had been perplexed by this turn of events, including our superintendent and principals.
Up to this point, both classes of first-year college students had been pursuing food service donations. We turned our attention to the portion of David Levitt’s project that addressed unopened milks from students in the cafeteria and extended this to wrapped snacks and whole fruits, as suggested by our food bank director.
We worked with our superintendent, principals, teachers, students, parents, and lunch aides. Everyone got onboard, restoring our faith in community and possibilities for solutions. Our children were eager for inclusion, and our lunch aides felt their presence in the cafeteria increased in value. Our superintendent told us the program supported his work in representing the outcomes of education to the community.
This class of college students took charge of meetings with the department of health, school principals, and parent teacher organization members to generate volunteers to transport food. They made posters for school cafeterias and presented the model to students at school assemblies. Kindergartners took on the task of putting up the Food2Share signs in cafeterias, and older students took charge of transferring food from the cafeteria collection bin to a refrigerated cooler. As our children learned, they stepped forward to contribute. They were an inspirational antidote to the corporate rejection, bringing immediacy of action and purity of vision.
As my college students spent time with cafeteria aides and parents, they returned with quotes in their journals, including these we received from lunch aides:
- “There is so much food waste. I’ve seen it for years, and it’s always upset me.”
- “It’s a relief to know the food is not going in the garbage.”
- “This is a great idea!”
A parent transport volunteer gave us a telling comment as well: “I have really enjoyed working with this project and feel it is so needed. My son is getting a grasp of what it is and what it does. In a day and age where kids have too much, something like this shows them it’s not that way for everyone.”
A sixth-grade teacher used Food2Share as the topic for a reflective writing assignment that involved writing about the Food2Share program. The following are excerpts from the students’ personal responses:
- “The program prevents us from throwing away perfectly good food, and it goes to the people who need it more than we do.”
- “It is the easiest way for a person in elementary school to help someone.”
- “I’m glad our school is participating in the Food2Share program because it’s an opportunity to help make Oneonta a better place to live.”
- “A lot of children give food every day, and I think that this is really something to be proud of! Everyone at our school loves this program.”
- “I think the Food2Share program is a great way to save food and give other people the food that you were going to throw out. I learned you shouldn’t throw away food you are not going to eat! Save the food for someone who needs it.”
- “I think this program should be in schools all around the United States. I hope that after you read this you will be raising food with the Food2Share program.”
- “Anyone can make a difference. Food2Share just makes sharing a little easier!”
- “I believe Food2Share is one of the best programs that have come to our town. We are donating clean and fresh food to our fellow citizens. It makes me proud to know I might be helping to save someone’s life or keep them healthier by giving food I’m not going to eat.”
As outcomes took shape, inspiration grew among my students. A service learning structure was forming for students in the elementary schools. We had incorporated preparation, action, and reflection, and we headed for celebration. As often happens in service learning projects, more ideas surfaced. The food bank began to send monthly donation statistics, broken down for each school and the college.
We also received responses from the staff at the food bank:
- “Milk is rare. It’s wonderful to get and a lot of people ask for it, and we can’t provide it usually.”
- “The milk is fantastic—much better than powdered milk. It’s a great present. Please tell the children the families are thrilled.”
- “It’s been impossible for us to do fresh milk. There were 200 families this month, 579 individuals.”
A fifth-grade teacher requested the food donation statistics for use in a graphing unit students were studying in math. After several days of graphing exercises, students explored a website for graph making. After the students made a graph with only their school’s data, the teacher had students try to figure out how to add the donation data from the other schools and told us, “They did this with no problem. The students loved it and asked to go back to do more.”
Another teacher offered to have her students create an updatable graph for the cafeteria. One teacher weighed in with the comment, “I never thought about it; we collect food at certain times of the year, but the need is year ’round.” In addition, the rural health director told us, “This program puts a face on food insecurity that a centralized system can’t. There are more relationships.”
A school-wide assembly at the beginning of the year was the perfect time to share the previous year’s outcomes and kick off the start of the new year. Food bank representatives shared the need in the community and the value of the students’ actions and contributions. A newspaper article and radio broadcast informed the community of the contribution students were making to address food insecurity in the community.
Greater awareness resulted; community members called to ask if they could donate leftovers from concession stands or catered events. Food bank representatives, trained in food handling, were able to provide the support required to make this happen.
Some of my college students, faced with significant leftovers from a weekend event, made calls to get the food expeditiously transported to our homeless shelter because the food bank was closed. Their classroom learning had made its way out into the larger framework of their lives, and their excitement for having recognized this opportunity was overwhelmingly present as they shared this outcome in class.
In our community, with four elementary schools, one middle school, a college food service, and a restaurant contributing to the formation of Food2Share, we collected over 16,000 pounds in four years. Although food insecurity was the originating focus for Food2Share, the program also diverted a significant amount of organic waste from our landfills. The value of service work taken into the educational arena provided real-life experiential learning that met a real community need.