NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – Salvaging and redistributing unused packs of carrots, containers of milk and other food items from school lunchrooms just might be the next big idea in the struggle to feed the 1 million food-insecure residents across the state.
And, the New Brunswick school district is one of the few to have implemented the plan.
Instead of throwing away their unwanted apples, bananas, and other food items, students at Roosevelt, Livingston and Redshaw elementary schools since January have been placing them on so-called share tables.
As part of this pilot program, any student is free to go over to the designated area and grab an extra snack. Whatever was left at the end of the day, however, was rounded up and brought to Elijah’s Promise. The nonprofit community kitchen then distributed the food to city residents who are food insufficient.
Some 3,900 pounds of food was collected from the schools and given to those in need.
Harvesting unused food and getting it to those who need it was one of the main topics of discussion at Thursday’s School Food Waste Reduction Summit.
Elijah’s Promise, Rutgers University, MCFOODS, and Middlesex County hosted the program at the Rutgers Institute for Food Nutrition and Health on Rutgers’ Cook Campus.
Thursday’s program also included a brainstorming session among the 100 or so community leaders from not only New Brunswick but surrounding towns such as Piscataway, Milltown and Highland Park.
Jennifer Shukaitis, a faculty member in Rutgers’ Department of Family and Community Health Sciences, spoke about how she was able to spearhead the program in the schools where every student gets a free breakfast and lunch.
Being a member of the city’s Board of Education helped her navigate the bureaucratic red tape. She pushed back against the inevitable pushback by demonstrating the share table was a low- or no-cost idea that has the blessing of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“What I love about the program is that not only does it reduce food waste, as we all know that why we’re here today, it’s a huge problem,” Shukaitis said. “But also the techniques we used helped encourage better nutrition in the kids and that they are actually eating more fruits and vegetables and consuming less sugar in the form of drinks, flavored milks and things.”
Food waste recovery programs also save their school districts money. Paterson did a food waste audit before implementing the program. The survey revealed 12 pounds of food waste was saved per school per day. That meant the estimated savings for the cost of the food was more than $76,000 a year.
The frustrating thing for Shukaitis, MCFOODS’ Jennifer Apostol, family and community health educator Sara Elnakib and Paterson school district director of food services’ David Buccholtz – who all spoke at Thursday’s summit - is that there is enough food to go around. It just happens to go to waste.
An estimated 30 to 40 percent of the food supply ends up as food waste. In 2010, an estimated 133 billion pounds of food from U.S. retail food stores, restaurants and homes – valued at $161 billion - went uneaten.
It’s going to take efforts, like the one in the New Brunswick school system, to change that.
Even though there are plans in New Brunswick to have other schools begin food waste reduction, the situation has been bittersweet.
“I think that it’s a little bit of both because I see all the food that is going to waste and it’s great to see it being recovered," she said. "But, it makes me realize we should be doing so much more."