NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - There is a new table in Lord Stirling Community School’s lunchroom where everyone is welcome. But instead of seating students, this table houses their unused fruits, vegetables, unopened milk containers, sandwiches and cheese sticks.
Lord Stirling is one of three elementary schools in New Brunswick participating in a new and innovative share table program designed to combat food waste and help get more food into the hands of students and others that need it.
All throughout lunch, students from Grades 1-5 make their way to the share table. Many still innocently ask for permission to take the extra apple or baby carrots recently left there by a classmate, despite the table's presence in the cafeteria since June 2019.
Like in many public schools, students are often served more to eat for lunch than they want or need, and not everybody likes or wants all of the items being served. Before share tables, these items were thrown out without a second thought. In fact, a recent report from the World Wildlife Foundation found that on average, 39.2 pounds of food per student per year is thrown away.
To cut back on waste and help fill everybody’s stomachs, share tables allow students to safely swap unopened foods they don’t want for more of what they do want.
In New Brunswick, Elijah's Promise found that schools in New Brunswick threw away between 30-50 pounds of reusable food per day during the 2018-2019 school year. Thanks to share tables, those schools now throw away almost none.
Over the course of a two-hour rotating lunch period of first through fifth graders, students at Lord Stirling placed more than 100 items on the Share Table. This included unopened milk, juice boxes, whole fruit, cut and wrapped vegetables and several other miscellaneous food items.
Almost all the food was snatched back up and eaten by students over those two hours. By lunch’s end, only a few pieces of fruit, a single bag of celery and several cartons of unopened plain milk remained.
With planning and cooperation, even these items find a home. Elijah’s Promise and their partners at the Middlesex County Food Organization and Outreach Distribution Services (MCFOODS) helped procure a dedicated refrigerator to house leftover share table food. Although most leftovers are eaten by students or the occasional staff member during lunch, the refrigerator allows the leftovers to be given out again at dismissal or used during after school programs. What remains at the end of the week is then rescued by Elijah’s Promise, a community kitchen that serves about 115,000 meals a year.
The share table does not function without a few hiccups. Sometimes, students have a difficult time understanding that the share table is, above all, for them to use and enjoy. The students are aware that the leftovers are donated to Elijah’s Promise and frequently ask “Us this food for the homeless people?”
Their desire to help others, while inspiring, inadvertently leads some students to donate their food rather than eat it themselves. Future versions of the training staff receive and classroom lessons for students will include an emphasis on eating what is on your plate, only taking as much food as you want in the first place and encouraging students to try new fruits and vegetables.
Shares tables are truly a win for everybody. There is no cost to the school; all it takes to start is a table, some signage, and staff and students who are instructed on how to use the table safely.
Then, the students are able to waste less and to get extras of the food they like, which especially includes fruits and vegetables.
Even the staff is elated by the new initiative.
“Our share table promotes empathy where students begin to look out for one another and begin to build a strong and connected school community among the student body,” said Gabriela Rowack, Lord Stirling’s school counselor.
There are currently share tables at Lord Stirling, Livingston, Redshaw, and Lincoln Annex. Elijah’s Promise and its partners around the city look forward to helping activate share tables in the rest of New Brunswick’s schools and in surrounding communities. To learn more about how to start share tables in your own school, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Read more about the impact of share tables in New Brunswick.
Jason Flatt is Food Systems & Communications Manager at Elijah's Promise.