School Cafeterias to Address Food Insecurity and Waste

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Milk cartons to be recycled

A year ago, the Rhode Island legislature passed a series of bills to amend the laws governing all K-12 schools.  The new laws focus on school food waste and student hunger. The bills became RI State law 23-18.9-17 Food Waste Ban and law 16-110-5 Food Donations.  In January 2023, the laws went into effect, requiring almost all K-12 schools in Rhode Island to begin composting their food waste and to divert healthy, edible food to students and families who are food insecure.  Unfortunately, the law has no enforcement mechanism nor does it provide much funding.  Fortunately, most school districts run a surplus in their meal program and those funds can be spent on funding this important program.

The RI School Recycling Club, led at the time by Chris Ratcliffe, a professor at Bryant University and Rhode Island College and Jim Corwin, a retired manager of radio stations and rock musician, had been following the progress of the bill.  In April and May 2019, they conducted a comprehensive food scrap audit in three school districts to see how much food was being wasted in elementary, middle, and high schools.  The audit showed that most food waste occurs in elementary schools, followed by middle schools, and the least in high schools.

The study’s conclusions were shared with legislators supporting the bills: a) approximately 2,500 tons of school food waste are sent to the landfill yearly, b) 388 tons of that waste is perfectly healthy, edible food such as unopened milks, oranges, bananas, cheese sticks and carrots, and c) wasted food represents 79% of the total waste coming out of the school lunchrooms.  Almost all of the food waste can be diverted from the landfill with a minimum of effort.  This data was particularly shocking given that between 30% and 40% of the families in the state are food insecure. 

Food waste to be composted

With laws set to take effect on January 1, 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency for a Healthy Communities approved a grant funding a ‘pilot’ program in four schools for the 2020-2021 school year.  Unfortunately, the pandemic was still requiring most students to eat their meals in the classroom, so the program got off to a slow start.

By the end of the 2021-2022 school year, the pilot program was running at LePerche Elementary School in Smithfield, Birchwood Middle School in North Providence, Rhodes Elementary School in Cranston, and Nathan Bishop Middle School in Providence.

The program launched RI Recycling Clubs, which implemented a unique structure, focusing on more than diverting waste.  When a school’s leadership agrees to participate, the project staff reaches out to all the members of the school community, from the custodians and food service staff to the teachers, PTO members and principals.  Everyone has a role to play if the program is to succeed.

First, the project staff arranges for a presentation by the RI Resource Recovery Corp (RIRRC) education staff to the full student body about food waste and hunger.  Next the students take a survey developed at Bryant University to track attitudes about food waste and hunger.  Then the school leadership team recruits students to lead the cafeteria portion of the program and they show their fellow students how to sort lunch room trash.  These leaders are called Rangers and Captains.  They set-up five sorting stations:

  1. Share Table  Untouched, unopened food that can be shared with students and families that are food insecure, goes here.
  2. Liquid Bucket  Liquids such as half-full milks and juices get emptied here.  Liquids are poured down the drain instead of being trucked to the landfill.
  3. Recycling Bin  Milk cartons, juice boxes, soda cans, aluminum foil, clean paper and plastic containers go here so they can be recycled.
  4. Compost Bin  All food scraps are put into the compost pail and taken by Bootstrap Compost to the new anaerobic digester where it is converted into nutrient rich compost to help regenerate the soil in our communities.
  5. Trash Bin.  What’s left, and it’s not much, goes here, then to the landfill.
  6. Tray Table Trays get stacked neatly so they take us less space in the trash can.
Students at Nathan Bishop Middle School diverting food waste in their cafeteria

Towards the end of the first year in a school, the projects fund a bus trip for Rangers and Captains to the Johnston landfill for a tour and then participation in RIRRC’s educational program at the Recycling Education Center.  After the school has diverted one ton or more of food waste from the school, it holds an award ceremony where the school is given a certificate by the Department of Environmental Management. Locally elected officials congratulate the students, food workers, custodians, parents, and teachers.

In the second year of the project, the Environmental Protection Agency renewed the grant allowing the addition of four schools: Martin Luther King Elementary School, Vartan Gregorian Elementary School and Leviton Dual Language Elementary School in Providence as well as Pleasant View Elementary School in Smithfield.  Providence has also been awarded a United States Department of Agriculture grant supporting the project expanding into four more schools over the next two years, especially in communities of color or with low-income students.

This project has been successful due to the more than 250 student Rangers and Captains, along with many teachers, custodians, food service workers and PTO members who spend time working or helping in lunchrooms.  In addition, Bootstrap Compost, the company contracted to haul away the compost, donates 200 pounds of compost back to each school for spring garden clean-ups.

To date these “food smart” schools have diverted 37.7 tons of food waste away from the landfill to be composted. They have recovered on their Share Tables 6.8 tons of healthy edible food, the equivalent of 11,000 meals, redistributed to hungry students and their families or donated to local food pantries.

The project also has set a goal of reducing food waste per student by 50% by 2030 in line with goals the EPA has set to help address global climate change.  Most of these food smart schools have already reduced their food waste per student by 20% or more.  By participating, schools have collectively reduced their carbon footprint by 104 Metric Tons of Co2, the equivalent to greenhouse emissions from 23 gasoline-powered vehicles driven for one year!

Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (Central landfill)

In September the program will begin at Mary Fogarty Elementary School in Providence funded by the USDA grant from the City’s Sustainability Office.  This grant will also allow the program to expand into three additional schools, totaling eight of the approximately forty schools in the city. At the urging of the project and the PTO leaders who are involved, the Superintendent of Schools pressed Sodexo, the food service provider, to compost all food waste in the kitchens. This is a step in the right direction, but most of the food waste occurs in the lunchroom, so there is lots of work still to be done.  

School leadership, teachers or parents interested in bringing this program to their school should contact Jim Corwin at Jamesacorwin@gmail.com or Warren Heyman at w.p.heyman@att.net.  For information regarding this program working in schools, go to www.rirecyclingclub.org.

Warren Heyman is a retired union organizer and currently the Organizing Director for RI School Recycling Project.