Food Rescue Program pilot launches at Diamond Middle School

By Heather Beasley Doyle

As a volunteer with Eco-Bridge, the Bridge Elementary School Green Team, Natalie Cohen helps students to compost and recycle their lunch remnants. Asking kids to open plastic containers and dump uneaten food in the trash so they can recycle the containers, “I was just so upset,” she says. Since January 2nd, one Lexington school, Diamond Middle School, has reduced food waste while helping the hungry, thanks to the launch of a two-month Food Rescue Program pilot. Through the pilot, uneaten purchased or unserved prepared cafeteria food bypasses compost and garbage bins and is redirected to local food insecure populations by Arlington-based Food Link.

Lexington Public Schools (LPS) Green Teams, described on its website as “a grassroots alliance of parents, staff, and students representing all Lexington public schools” dedicated to waste prevention and reduction, initiated the pilot program.

From left to right: Melissa Steinberg – Assistant Food Service Director, Whitsons Lexington, Kevin Silvia – Food Service Director, Whitsons Lexington, Tina McBride and Natalie Cohen – LPS Green Teams, Kari Sasportas – Public Health Director Lexington, Kammy Demello – Health agent Lexington, Diamond Principal Jennifer Turner of Diamond, Brent Lo of Food Link, Dr. Julie Hackett, LPS Superintendent. Not pictured- David Coelho – Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations, David Amicangioli, LHS facility Manager.

The alliance brought the nascent program to fruition in collaboration with the town’s Department of Public Health, the Board of Health and Whitsons Culinary Group, which provides Lexington Public Schools’ dining services.

Lexington Green Teams’ path to food rescue officially began in October 2018, when Lexington parents Cohen and Tina McBride began exploring the idea for the group. Cohen serves as Eco-Bridge co-coordinator, while McBride is part of the Diamond Middle School and Lexington High School Green Teams. Just as Cohen and McBride joined forces, Alison Cross of Wellesley Food Rescue Initiatives invited them to a workshop on rescuing food from schools.

“Alison Cross had told us at the beginning of this process, ‘you want to get the health department on board, because ultimately they’re the last stop for this to be okay,’” McBride says. Crucial to that buy-in was developing a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) detailing the process for storing recovered food before kitchen staff hand it over to Food Link for donation to homeless shelters and food pantries. Food safety is paramount.

“We wanted to make sure at every stage in that process that we knew who was handling the food, what temperature it was at, and when it was picked up, so we could keep track of that,” says Kari Sasportas, Health Director at the town of Lexington. McBride and Cohen based their first-draft SOP on Wellesley Public Schools’. By the time Sasportas arrived in March, it was ready for review.

The program covers what is known, in the food industry, as pre-consumer and post-consumer food. In this case, pre-consumer food has been cooked by Whitsons staff and is still in the original serving container, unserved to any student, after the day’s lunch periods. Post-consumer food includes items sold in the cafeteria such as string cheese, fruit and yogurt that remain unopened and uneaten. Food brought from home cannot be rescued for donation.

Sasportas, whose background is in environmental health, was eager to talk with McBride and Cohen. “I was actually really happy to hear this, and ready to engage,” she says. The three worked more on the SOP, which included a training manual for Whitsons staff and logs for tracking food ahead of donation. In August, Sasportas recommended that Cohen and McBride take it to the Board of Health for review. The board approved the pilot contingent on Sasportas’s final approval. While LPS Green Teams had hoped for a broader pilot and still hopes, ultimately, to expand the program to all Lexington public schools, the Board of Health approved one pilot location.

“There are a lot of moving parts here, a lot of stakeholders,” explains Sasportas; Whitsons oversees kitchen procedures, while the Department of Public Health checks the logs, and Food Link picks up the food. “Given that this was something new, we wanted to start with one school, revisit it and see how that went; see if there are any logistical changes we need to make in training or procedures.”

Sasportas, Health Agent Kammy Demello, Cohen, McBride and Whitsons manager Kevin Silvia will do that revisiting in late February when they will also discuss possible program expansion.

The SOP “is all precautionary,” Sasportas says, adding that she has no concerns about a well designed and managed food rescue program. “Food-born illness is pretty rare, but you’re dealing with food donations that might be going to families with young children, it might be going to people who are immunocompromised, so we want to make sure that the food is of good quality and safe.”

For their part, McBride and Cohen have learned the ins and outs of food safety. They’re now familiar with the Environmental Protection Agency’s food recovery hierarchy, which explains how best to keep food out of landfills (feeding the hungry ranks second, after source reduction). They learned, through Cohen’s careful surveying, that Bridge Elementary School throws out 23 pounds, on average, of uneaten food each day. While the food rescue program will reduce that figure, McBride encourages parents to talk with their children about home lunch waste. “If you send food with your children to school, you can encourage them, ‘Look, if you don’t eat this, bring it home, so I know what you don’t want, or what’s mushy by the time it gets to school, or what’s unappetizing by the time you get there.’ Whatever it is.”

And they’re excited about rolling out a new LPS Green Teams initiative, one that broadens the group’s focus beyond climate change to food insecurity. “It’s not just about the planet; it’s about helping those who are hungry,” notes Cohen.

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