“Can I have that banana? I’m still hungry,” said a sixth-grade student peering into a bin full of unopened bananas, apples, milk, and a couple of unopened, plastic-wrapped sandwiches at a public middle school in Fayetteville, Arkansas recently.
These unopened items are the result of a student food waste audit conducted in partnership with the school’s Green Team, the University of Arkansas, and the World Wildlife Fund. Student food waste audits are the measurement of what students have left on their trays at the end of their lunch period. Some trays have been picked clean, some picked over, and others hold untouched, unopened foods. And, while some students are totally satiated, others remain hungry.
Connecting the dots between these two kinds of students is the idea of a “share table,” a way to address both student hunger and food waste in school meal programs during the school year and summer.
Share tables—or carts or tubs—are exactly what they sound like: places to drop off things like packages of carrots, bananas, or apples, or unopened cartons of milk for other students to pick up free of charge.
With the USDA’s encouragement, a growing number of school lunch programs across the country are now offering share tables. But there has also been some surprising pushback recently.
Earlier this year, the Connecticut Department of Education (DOE) issued a memo to its school food providers noting that “the intent of the school nutrition programs is to serve reimbursable meals to students” and, by both implication and a long list of restrictions, severely limit what is allowed on share tables in Connecticut schools.
While school nutrition directors do have a mandate to maintain a balanced budget, it’s important to clarify that the primary purpose of the National School Lunch Program is to provide children with the healthy food their brains and bodies need to get through the day. It is not, as the Connecticut DOE memo implies, to sell food.
North Carolina Joins the Fight
Connecticut’s move follows an even more drastic response to share tables in North Carolina, where at the end of 2016 the state’s Health and Human Services division dramatically cut what share tables can offer.
Hanna Wondmagegn, a senior at East Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, founded a share-table food recovery program in her sophomore year. Now, the program is at a standstill and food recovery efforts have reached a choke point.
Under the new North Carolina rules, fruits, vegetables, rolls, cookies, and/or trail mixes that have been prepared and packaged by school food service staff are prohibited from being shared, as well as shell-on hard-boiled eggs, commercially packaged cut melons, cut tomatoes, and cut leafy greens. Worst of all, in Wondmagegn’s opinion, the new rules do not permit students to share unopened milk cartons, which are highly likely to remain unopened. More than one-third of the items Wondmagegn’s Food Rescue program have collected were milk cartons.
“As of right now, we’ve gone from collecting 4,650 items to zero, because the list of items that we’re allowed to collect is tiny,” said Wondmagegn, who is also the national director of student leadership for Food Rescue, an Indiana-based food recovery nonprofit. “That eliminates like 99 percent of our allowable donations, and to me, it’s unnecessary and doesn’t make sense.”
In addition to increasing student hunger and food waste, restricting share tables doesn’t meet the stated goals of school administrators. Share-table food does not affect a district’s reimbursable meals nor their bottom line as the Connecticut memo implies, because these unopened items have already been accounted for. And, while there have been some concerns for food safety, there have been no incidences on record in North Carolina where share tables have led to a public health violation. However, there is plenty of data relating to childhood hunger that should create the prevailing wind in this argument.
Nicole Civita, director of the Food Recovery Project at the University of Arkansas’s School of Law, believes these kinds of restrictions are fighting paper tigers, because no legal actions have been taken against share tables or the federal legislation that enables the practice.
“Local health and safety codes may operate to limit what can be shared in this format,” Civita said, “but hopefully regulators at the state and local levels will be guided by common sense instead of hyper-technical interpretations of rules designed for other types of food commerce and exchange.”
The Many Benefits of Share Tables
In addition to the moral argument for using surplus food to feed hungry children, there are a number of other arguments—economic, environmental, and public health—for embracing share tables.
Share tables enable us to use the federal tax dollars we invest in feeding 31 million kids each day for their highest and greatest good. When students offer their unopened, unconsumed foods to other students, they expand the impact of our investment in their food security.
For example, a carton of milk costs approximately 50 cents per carton. The nearly 2,000 unopened milk cartons Wondmagegn recorded going to waste during the 2015-16 school year cost over $989 to purchase. Factor in the disposal costs and it means this school is wasting about $1,500 a year just in unopened milk.
Share tables also promote an ethic of food conservation and respect for the impacts of food waste. And decomposing food in landfills creates and emits the powerful greenhouse gas methane. To help organizations like schools manage their food waste in the most sustainable way possible, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has created a hierarchy of food recovery. The hierarchy, visualized as inverted pyramid, illustrates that surplus, edible food should go to people first, then to animals, then to industries (such as organics recycling companies), and then to compost piles. Only as a last resort should food resources be sent to a landfill.
Share tables also complement the educational mission of schools. Whether we acknowledge it or not, the lunch room is a classroom, and students learn lessons there, either by intention or attrition.
Habituating children to share their uneaten food is also a public health “nudge” that can influence dietary choices at home and the behavior patterns they will carry into adulthood.
Share tables also cultivate an ethic of empathy, looking out for one another, and building a strong, connected school community among the student body. And they prevent “hangry” kids from being too distracted to learn.
Fayetteville sixth-grade science teacher Brandy Pledger said her students love the school’s share table. “What they don’t take, we teachers take back to our classroom or departmental refrigerators to share with students in the afternoons and/or in after-school programs.”
[Update: In September 2017, California governor Jerry Brown signed legislation allowing the state’s schools to donate unopened, leftover food from school cafeterias to food banks and charities, especially that had previously been offered on school share tables.]