The first step in establishing our “Food Rescue” efforts was to do some reconnaissance and get a general pulse on how things were working at lunch. For context our school was just coming off of a major renovation in the 15-16 school year, so if you can imagine we had construction fences, crews, trucks, etc. The campus wasn’t necessarily ”dirty” but had a chaotic feel to it since there was so much activity going. I remember just walking through campus noticing the amount of perfectly packaged food laying around as “litter” and waiting for the descent of black crows at the end of each day - it was surreal. I wasn’t the only one who noticed, many teachers/admin would bring it up in conversations and would remark how it was a sad situation. I reached out to the Eco Club at our school and it turned out the sponsor for the club was leaving that school year which created a void, and an opportunity. I restarted Eco Club in the 16-17 school year and recruited a small group of students to conduct “lunch waste audits.” These students were invaluable resources and were essentially boots on the ground that took notes and pictures during lunch on any current situations/habits. We met and continue to meet formally every Friday to discuss the audits. One International Baccalaureate (IB) student even did her Math IA tracking waste habits during "feeding times". The Eco Club students observed that most kids at lunch didn’t want to walk too far for a trash can. They also observed that our trash can design (picture attached) had a circular flat lid and the Styrofoam trays were big rectangles which created a geometrically unfavorable situation so the trash would just pile on the top of the lid and not actually go inside the container. These students also identified “hot bed” areas where excess trash/litter was piling up (mostly in the shrubs and hedges which provided some cover. Other examples of things we learned during the recon phase was students were given a lot of excess packaging (a plastic bag containing wrapped items) with their food so it’s easy to carry and distribute. This resulted in plastic bags littering our campus. In future years, these same students also helped tackle other waste issues like avoiding landfill waste contamination in our recycling bins or observing that we had non compostable single use plastics. The recon efforts were extremely important for us to figure out what was contributing to the food waste and lunch litter. The “Food Rescue Data Collection” form is a tool which also helps us keep track of which food options aren’t popular and we are able to share that data with both of our cafeteria manager and our principal daily.
The intel we gathered from the recon step guided our restructuring efforts. The students began to take off the small circular opening lids at lunch so the containers were wide open and moved the trash cans closer to the previously identified "hot bed" areas. Some of the problematic areas were empty darkly colored mulch plots with mostly bushes which made them excellent targets for unwanted food to be thrown into. We had a student renovate the area for his Eagle Scout project and as an added touch we planted a "Cypress" tree and introduced a lighter reddish mulch with low growing plants to enhance the curb appeal. This help reduced the temptation to litter a freshly cleaned spot. We also started a three-tiered food share cart with color coded bins that students drove around during lunch (picture attached) to collect unwanted packaged food before it became trash – so we eliminated the "walking" problem which is why we decided against a share table. The cart has a sign that changes based off the season and is a good way to raise awareness of our efforts. The students made two rounds through the problematic area and one round elsewhere. Another teacher added green bins that are now on top of every outdoor trash can. These bins are now emptied by students three times a day and the contents are stored in the teacher's lounge. This past year we’ve been decorating the trash cans to make them more visible and as a way to increase student participation via the art. One teacher at our school has students who empty the bins and another teacher has students who sets them out every day. (Many hands make light work!) – once we restructured we decided to focus on the root of the problem “the culture.”
As mentioned before, no set norms/culture had been established for what to do with the excess unwanted food so we wanted students to at least know there were alternative to just throwing away perfectly uneaten food. We recognized early on that in order to have a long term solution versus a temporary we have reduce the amount of food and packaging being thrown away as well as continue the ongoing rescue efforts. To accomplish this we used the food share cart and sent students out in teams of 2-10 during both lunch shifts and split up their tasks. Some volunteers spread out and had students fill out a Food Rescue survey form via a google form while others focused on the collection/rescue efforts. The survey helped our recon efforts and also subtly informed students that there are other options besides the trash can. Students were also given alternatives for throwing away their fresh fruits (compost) vs in the trash can if they didn't want to eat them. We also decided to “humanize our custodians” by interviewing them and putting them on the school news. This year we will have pictures of them displayed in the areas they clean “This area is maintained by ____” we wanted to make them a visible part of our campus as they serve a valuable but often overlooked role in the functioning of schools. Our principal stresses the importance of “one family” and we wanted to extend the spirit of community and family to our custodians. On October 2nd, we are recognizing them for National Custodian Appreciation Day. The Eco Club students have made cards for them and little personalized gifts and the plan is to surprise them with a banquet with our admin, students, and guidance team present, after which students will follow the custodian on their shifts to learn a little about what happens behind the scenes. This is being done on a Wednesday (early release day). The hope is that by building a sense of community we can drastically reduce lunch litter around campus. We also learned that there are compostable utensils and lunch trays (picture attached) vendor options that our school’s cafeteria manager could order (another person who is worth befriending) so we switched over to those at our school now. We are working on actually being able to compost them at school also so we have closed-loop solution.
Now that we've collected all of this food, what do we do? In the beginning it was truly a learning curve. We ran into many issues. We were collecting perishables that needed refrigeration which required space, we had competing efforts with food rescue (other teachers had their own bins and Eco Club was doing the cart). This inevitably led to pile ups of food in many locations that weren't being effectively repurposed or redistributed. We decided to homogenize our efforts to have one central storage location (the teacher's lounge) which had plenty of empty fridge and table space. The teacher's lounge serves as the hub for all of the collected food, there it is sorted, counted, and stored. Teacher's are encouraged to take whatever they want from the usually well stocked fridge and they can even create a little "stash" for hungry students in their classes. It turns out students don't mind taking food when it comes out of a teacher drawer or is discrete versus picking an item from a basket in the hallway. Any leftovers go to local non-profits and food pantries every Monday. They pick up "our trash" with smiles. Pro Tip: Retirement homes and local aging councils love the food our students aren't fond of such as fruit cups, skimmed milk, and apple sauce. This year we are hoping to start a student-run cafe for teachers using the milk and fruits to make hot/cold drinks such as smoothies and coffee. This also allows us to expand our sense of school community by potentially including the business students, digital information, and best buddies students.
We still send the cart out at lunches to continue to reinforce but it isn't needed as much now as students have gotten accustomed to using the fixed bins on top of the freshly decorated bright trash cans. We also gave all of our "ally volunteers" Green Team t-shirts to increase awareness and to also validate their hard work. We meet every Friday to strategize how to make our efforts even more streamlined. This year we hope to get rolling color coded trash cans with potentially fun designs like a basketball backboard attachment to be able to sort our waste so more food waste can be used as compost (picture attached). We plan on upgrading the share bins that are placed around campus to include solar powered stopwatches to be able to time how long it's been between "shifts." This will help with documentation and food safety especially with perishables such as milk. We will also utilize laminated QR codes at the bottom to log the volunteer assigned and location of each bin. We've discussed the possibility of students bringing reusable silverware or set up a system at school with a student-run washing station. We have guest speakers who visit from the Ethical Choices Program and the Factory Farming awareness coalition once per quarter. Lastly, at the end on the weekend of Earth Day we host an a gardening event to encourage community participation and involvement. The key ingredient in this formula has been collaboration and communication between many groups of students and teachers. Every member of Eco Club has to join at least one other club to increase collaboration amongst student groups. So many Eco Club members are also involved in SGA, Best Buddies, Leo Club, National Honor's Society, etc. so we are able to collaborate and outsource many other "Green Team" tasks. This hasn't been easy but it has certainly been worthwhile, as illustrated by the length of this email.
HS Teacher Cypress Creek HS