Ruhi Shirodkar shares her K-12 Food Rescue journey in Minnesota. Be inspired by one student who overcame adversity to make a positive impact in her community and state by fighting food waste in her school.
My name is Ruhi Shirodkar and I'm currently a junior at Wayzata High School in Plymouth, Minnesota. I'm working on implementing a food wastage prevention program through Food Rescue at my school, though it is proving difficult with the many restrictions on food collection and donation rules contrary to USDA guidelines that exist in my district. I hope my story will help others who are looking to start a Food Rescue program at their school, but don't know where to start.
I had always known that food wastage was a large problem in America, but I never understood just how large of an issue it was until I started high school. I began to notice that students were throwing away perfectly good food - such as whole fruits, milk cartons, juice boxes, and yogurts - without even touching it. At the end of last year, I decided it was time to stop helplessly watching and start doing something about the wastage. I spoke to one of my teachers and asked her if she would serve as an adviser to a food wastage prevention group I was going to start, and she agreed. Over the summer, I researched online for weeks, my eyes glued to the computer screen, skimming articles about college campuses donating uneaten food to local pantries and farmers donating their excess produce to shelters. Finally, I came across the Food Rescue website and saw that it was a program through which other students my age or younger were able to successfully start food collection programs at their schools. This was the type of program I was looking to implement, so I filled out the contact form and was sent information about how to get started.
The next day, I went to my adviser and told her about Food Rescue. I asked her who I should contact at the school and she told me the name of the cafeteria director. I emailed her with my plan and she agreed to meet me to discuss how it might be implemented. Throughout the next few weeks, I learned that there were many restrictions in place in Minnesota on what types of food could and could not be collected, the "could" category being very narrow. Some of these restrictions did not make sense to me. For example, my district does not allow whole fruits to be collected, as there is risk that the fruits could be contaminated. However, these fruits are untouched and unpeeled, and they are usually covered with a wax coating which prevents damage to the insides. Furthermore, milk is not allowed to be collected, as it it is a perishable item and believed that it "will be contaminated" if left out even for one lunch period. I found out that the USDA and several other state departments of health disagree with this assertion when I called Mr. John Williamson, the executive director of Food Rescue, and discussed my cafeteria directors' concerns with him. He pointed me toward USDA guidelines that can be followed to make this process safe. He also questioned how milk does not get contaminated on the way home from the grocery store, often a longer duration than a lunch period. Schools are also protected by the 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Law, and that according the Arkansas Food Recovery Project, there have been no successful lawsuits regarding donated food since the Emerson Law was enacted, due to the high standard of gross negligence established for guilt associated with the mishandling of food. This program does much more good than harm to the world by keeping perfectly eatable food out of landfills and instead donating it to those who need it. I asked if I could somehow get around my district's regulations, and Mr. Williamson told me that I could perform a food audit and get my school to tally how much and which types of food are being wasted, and present these results to my school board and local health department to persuade them to adopt the USDA guidelines and the K-12 Food Rescue program.
It took some time, but I eventually managed to convince cafeteria authorities to allow me to perform a food audit for a week. The results of the audit showed that in one day, there were pounds upon pounds of perfectly eatable food being thrown away by students. Something had to be done about it.
I persuaded my principal and cafeteria authorities to allow me to test out the food wastage prevention program I had planned out for two weeks to determine how much food was being salvaged through it. The cafeteria director made space to place the saved food in the cafeteria’s walk-in refrigerator and a few days later, I had designed posters and bins to place food in for a test run of my program. On the first few days, I stood in front of the entire cafeteria during two of four lunch hours (my schedule didn’t allow me to run the program during all four lunches) and made announcements about the program and what problem it was designed to solve. There wasn’t too much food collected during the first week, as students and staff were still understanding and getting used to the program’s existence. However, during the second week, food collection amounts skyrocketed. Instead of collecting less than half a pound of food a day, the program was salvaging about two pounds of food per day! I had convinced school authorities through my test run that the program was clearly making a difference in saving food that would otherwise end up in landfills, and they granted me permission to continue it.
By the end of the school year, over fifty pounds of food were salvaged and donated to a local food shelter in the two months that my program ran. I will continue running this food wastage prevention program at my high school, and in the coming year, I hope to expand its efforts to encompass all four lunches at my school and fine-tune it to salvage as much food as possible.
I hope my story inspires you to battle through obstacles to implementing a Food Rescue program at your school. Concerns will undoubtedly reveal themselves when a new idea is brought to light, but do not allow them to bog you down.