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Schools Are Feeding Hungry Students With Meals That Would Have Gone to Waste

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By Sasha Jones

Every Friday, more than 100 students in three Indiana school districts take home two backpacks. One is packed with their usual school supplies. The second is an insulated backpack filled with eight frozen meals comprised of food that would have otherwise been thrown away. 

The backpacks filled with weekend meals is one of the newest ways that schools are battling food insecurity and hunger among students. The districts in Indiana have partnered with a local nonprofit called Cultivate.

"We loved the idea of the food rescue and we know that there's a huge need of food insecurity in our county," said Natalie Bickel, the supervisor of student services and the attendance officer of the Elkhart Community Schools  in Elkhart, Ind. "It just makes sense when you think of how much waste there is."

Food rescue is the main goal of Cultivate. The process encourages restaurants, grocery stores, and other community partners to donate edible food that would otherwise go to waste. The food that is rescued is not leftovers, but meals that were prepared, but never served.  

The food is then brought to Cultivate in a refrigerated truck, logged, dated, and placed in a cooler. A team, consisting of three employees and 400 volunteers, then packages the food, including a protein, starch, and vegetable, into three compartment containers, along with labels that include descriptions of the meal, cooking instructions, and any potential allergens.

The weekend meals program began this year as a partnership between Cultivate and the South Bend Community School Corporation, where 70 percent of students received free and reduced lunches in 2017, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Funded by a grant from the Kelly Cares Foundation, the Madison STEAM Academy, the elementary school were the program is being piloted, pinpointed 100 kindergarten and 1st grade students who were food insecure and had larger families who would also benefit from participation.

"When Monday rolls around, our kids are hungry. They can't wait to get breakfast," said Deb Martin, the principal of Madison STEAM Academy.  "When you have fights about food, or you have kids coming in and running to breakfast, then you know you have food insecurity at your school."

Of the students who were identified as needing the weekend meals, 10 did not have a microwaves to heat the frozen meals, according to Martin. The school was able to provide those families with microwaves through donations from Best Buy and the Kelly Cares Foundation.

The pilot program is being studied by researchers at The University of Notre Dame to see if it impacts student attendance and reading achievement. Martin said attendance has already increased.  

Elkhart Community Schools started the program soon after South Bend with one change: rather than being funded by a grant, the district donates its cafeteria food to Cultivate three days a week.

In 2017, 62 percent of students in the Elkhart district received free and reduced lunch, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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Millions of Children Are 'Food Insecure'

Expanding participation to other schools is heavily dependent on donations, according to Randy Z, the general manager and co-founder of Cultivate.

"Cultivate would love to be in every school, but for that to happen, the school corporations have to be involved and they have to get more of the community to be involved," Z said. "We can't fix the world unless they're going to contribute to us or find more food suppliers."

Cultivate also serves a small number of students at Madison Elementary School as part of its partnership with the Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation.

Of the 15 million households that were food insecure at some time during 2017, 6.5 million children were food insecure, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture

In Indiana, 19 percent of children under 18-years-old live in households that have limited or uncertain availability to nutritious food, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit that advocates for combatting hunger.

Lack of nutrition can harm cognitive development in children 3-years-old and younger, and can lead to an inability to concentrate, as well as social and behavioral issues in school-aged children, according to research by Feeding America.

In 2016, 59 percent of food-insecure households reported participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children and the National School Lunch Program, according to No Kid Hungry, an advocacy group.

However, according to Bernard Dreyer, the former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, additional federal programs like the School Breakfast program, Summer Meals program, and the Afterschool Meals program can help food insecure students better access meals.

Schools should also provide all kids with nutritional meals that follow the USDA's standards, Dreyer said.

"There's often the complaint that kids won't eat the healthy foods ... there's no good evidence that that's really the case," Dreyer said. "I think that's a myth, an excuse that many schools will use to not try to upgrade the nutrition in their foods."

Nutritional standards for school meals related to sodium and whole grains that had been tightened by the Obama administration have been loosened under the Trump administration.

Non-nutritious foods may also be an issue for families with non-traditional work schedules, like parents who work shifts or at night, said Holly Donovan, the associate director of program innovation for the No Kid Hungry campaign.

"There might be families where there's food in the house, but maybe it's not the food that is healthy," Donovan said. "The idea that they're sending home meals on the weekend that are prepared is really important because it's going to address the time barriers for families."

Cultivate hopes to expand to serve more students, as well as educate more community members about food rescue.

"There's a lot more than just the kids at my schools or the kids at Elkhart Schools," said Martin, the principal. "I think that this is going to start a new movement of not wasting food."

Top Photo: In three Indiana school districts, frozen meals are packaged and sent home in an insulated backpack to more than 100 children who've been identified as food insecure.-- courtesy of Natalie Bickel, Elkhart Community Schools 

Photo: Volunteers pack frozen meals into backpacks to send home with students over the weekend.-- courtesy of Natalie Bickel, Elkhart Community Schools  

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