Reducing waste in school cafeterias

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Wilson County Schools has installed two “share carts” at two elementary schools in hopes of reducing the amount of food that’s discarded each day and providing students an opportunity to share unwanted portions with classmates who may want more for their meal.

Renee Turner, WCS grant writer and special projects coordinator, said Walmart Neighborhood Market grant funding purchased the carts.

“What we wanted to do is address a couple of things, one of them being that there is a lot of waste in the cafeteria because to meet federal guidelines, a child must take certain portions of nutritional food whether they are going to eat it or not, so a lot of it gets thrown away,” Turner said. “We can’t control that, but we have come up with a way to where we have a share cart.”

Turner said the schools are trying to teach students about the value of the food they’ve been provided.

“They have a food that they are not going to eat, so we are modeling and we are teaching them to be good stewards of the food we have been given to share with others,” Turner said.

Mary Catherine Talton, WCS director of child nutrition, said each cart cost about $750. So far, Vick and Barnes elementary schools are participating.

Students can drop off unwanted and unopened food and drinks on the share cart before leaving the cafeteria. If a student happens to still be hungry, he or she can grab an additional item or two to eat.

Not everything can be placed in the cart.

Items should include prepackaged foods, unopened and wrapped foods and beverages or food items with a peel. Some examples include unopened milk, cheese, yogurt and cut fruits and vegetables that are placed on ice. Other items include unopened crackers, cereal bars, chips, wrapped whole fresh fruit or vegetables or unwrapped fruits with inedible peels.

Student are not permitted to place items from home on the share carts.

“They will come from students who are required to take those items per federal regulation but may not want to consume that item if it is something they can’t eat or don’t have time to eat,” Talton said. “We do a program called Offer vs. Serve, which helps that so that the student is only required to take one fruit or vegetable so it’s not an overage of items that they are required to take. They are only required to take three items, one of which has to be a fruit or a vegetable, and that’s oftentimes not necessarily the one they want, but they take them anyway.

On one of the first days of the program, the first two items to appear were a container of carrots and a fruit cup.

Talton said it might take a while for children to catch on.

“It will also take some training and watching other students take part in this,” Talton said. “Some days will be heavier than others because some days we are going to have items where they want everything, and some days we will have students that don’t want certain items.”

James Middleton, school nutrition supervisor for elementary schools, said he’s excited about the share carts.

“I am looking forward to expanding it to all elementary schools in Wilson County in addition to middle schools and possibly even high schools,” Middleton said. “Some elementary schools already have similar programs working through that individual school, and it is working very well.”

Talton said she thinks students will receive the program well because many already exchange food with one another.

The effort will hopefully reduce the amount of food that’s thrown away.

“I am going to quote Sonny Perdue, who is the USDA secretary,” Talton said. “He told us last year at a conference that, ‘In America, we have the healthiest trash cans in the world.’ And share carts are such an opportunity for us to truly have the healthiest students in the world, so I am super excited about that opportunity.”

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