Bill would use school leftovers to feed students on weekends

Monitor staff
Published: 4/17/2021 3:00:05 PM

State lawmakers are considering a bill that aims to tackle the issues of food waste and childhood hunger by allowing students to eat school lunch leftovers over the weekend.

The bill, which has passed the House and is currently in the Senate Education Committee, would permit school districts to partner with a nonprofit organization to freeze leftover food from school and turn them into “TV dinners” that students can take home and eat over the weekend.

Rep. Tom Loughman, a Democrat from Hampton, who introduced the bill, HB500, said it was inspired by a school in Elkhart, Ind., that has a similar program.

“This went a long way toward solving two problems: It reduces school food waste while also addressing child hunger over the weekends,” Loughman said Tuesday at a Senate Education Committee hearing.

An amendment to the bill specifies that the weekend meal packaging must be in compliance with state and federal FDA food safety regulations and says schools would be protected from liability under the federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act.

The bill is an enabling act, Rep. Loughman said, and wouldn’t create a mandate for schools. No law currently bans schools from donating leftover food, but this bill aims to codify their ability to do so.

“Not only can we do it, but we are providing a bit of structure and guidance around it so that it can be done well and properly and safely,” Loughman said at a House Education Committee hearing in February.

In New Hampshire, one in eight children experience food insecurity, according to Feeding America, and state data shows 26.4% of students enrolled in public schools qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch. Child hunger advocates emphasize in particular the approximately 68 weekend hours that some students spend without food, between the free lunch they get in school Friday and the free breakfast they get Monday.

“As a child, I was one of those who, for a small period time in my life, received free and reduced lunches,” state Rep. Megan Murray, who co-sponsored the bill, said on Tuesday. “Not unlike many who experience food insecurity, there were times when spaghetti sandwiches got my mom through, stretching food to meet our needs. Food insecurity is one of the daily barriers children experience in their academic days, and it absolutely affects them during their learning.”

A 2019 study by the World Wildlife Organization estimates schools generate on average 39.2 pounds of food waste and 28.7 cartons of milk waste per student every year. The study estimated that nationwide, food waste in schools (excluding milk) could be as much as 530,000 tons per year.

One commonly-cited reason for waste is the USDA requirement that a student meal consist of an item from each of the five food groups – grain, protein, vegetable, fruit and dairy – and students are often required to take all five items, regardless of whether they plan to eat them.

Concord schools usually use an “offer versus serve” strategy recommended by USDA to reduce food waste, where students are permitted to choose three items from the five recommended categories, as long as one is a fruit or vegetable, according to Donna Reynolds, Concord School District’s director of food services.

“It cuts down on waste, because if kids come through and they are forced to take five items they aren’t going to eat, you’re going to have waste for sure,” Reynolds said.

But Reynolds says COVID-19 operations mean the district hasn’t been able to use the “offer versus serve” method this year, as they have been preparing packaged lunches for students that contain all five components. She says she believes this has led to more food waste than usual this year.

Reynolds said Concord chefs use strategies like forecasting, looking at records of how much of a particular dish was eaten last time it was served to anticipate how much to cook next time. And keeping foods at safe temperatures allow the chefs to be able to reuse leftovers that don’t get served. But after the food is prepared, they have less control over waste.

“We have very little waste in the cafeteria itself from what we make and prepare,” Reynolds said. “The waste comes on the student side. That’s a nationwide problem.”

Concord schools don’t keep data on how much food waste is generated. Neither does Merrimack Valley. Reynolds says the most common items to be left over after student lunches are the vegetables, and also the individual milk cartons.

The Nashua School District has a “share cart” system, where students can leave unused wrapped food items they don’t want to eat on a cart for other students to take. The system was created by a student group called Meals Matter, which is a fiscal agency of the United Way of Greater Nashua. The share cart is a smaller-scale way of attacking the same issues of waste and hunger that HB500 aims to address.

“I think we’re all committed to the idea that schools are much more effective when kids are not hungry,” said Michael Apfelberg, president of United Way of Greater Nashua, who testified in support of the bill.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, United Way partnered with the school district to distribute breakfast and lunch, and with Nashua Soup Kitchen to deliver frozen meals to students. Apfelberg said that existing partnership would make future efforts, such as a weekend meal freezing and distribution program, feasible.

“Schools have commercial kitchens; they’re really good at making a large quantity of food,” Apfelberg said Thursday. “We’re good at mobilizing community volunteers to distribute food in the community. So that’s where we envision sort of ramping up what we have been doing in a smaller way with the soup kitchen in partnership with the schools.”

The bill has passed the New Hampshire House, and is currently in the Senate Education Committee. If it passes the committee, it will move to the Senate floor for a vote.

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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