By Joyell Nevins
Ever wonder where the leftover lunch items from your kids’ school cafeteria goes? In the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), those last few hamburger patties from Lewis Middle or single breadsticks from Hearst Elementary no longer end up in a trash can. Thanks to the program “Love Food, Not Waste,” that extra food is being passed on to organizations fighting food insecurity.
From its pilot start in September 2016, to full district incorporation in 2017, to now, 482,799 pounds of food have been kept out of the landfill. Rather than contributing to methane gas and climate change — that amount of food waste would have produced over 262,000 pounds of carbon emissions — the food waste has instead helped provide more than 402,000 meals to local folks in need.
Staging a food rescue
It started with “Chef Bob” Brody, Food & Nutrition Services program specialist, who was concerned about the large amount of prepared food that was being wasted on a district level. So, he started a “food rescue” initiative with his team.
“We don’t always know what the students are going to eat,” he said, explaining why it can be hard for food service workers to gauge the amount of food to prepare for a daily meal period. And if there was only a small amount left, like three SunButter and jelly sandwiches, the excess food wasn’t enough to carry over until the next day.
He also discovered that the amount of food left over by many of the small schools, such as Dailard Elementary, wasn’t enough to warrant a food relief charity making a trip to pick it up. But what happens when food waste is combined from the various school cafeterias?
“Between [that] little school, and this little school, that’s a lot of food,” Brody said.
The next question was how to get the extra food out of the school and into the kitchens of those who are feeding the needy. Brody and his team realized that there was already a process of delivery drivers in place bringing food products to the school on a regular basis. Now, those trucks just take the food waste out of the school when they leave, and bring it back to the cluster hubs.
“It doesn’t cost us anything extra,” Brody said. “We’ve taken the process and increased its usability.”
Actually, the process is saving the district money, Brody notes. Seeing how much is left over from certain meals is helping the individual schools’ food services budget their food amounts. Brody said he has seen a reduction in overall food costs and purchases since the institution of Love Food, Not Waste.
“We produce less, we buy less, and we see more revenue,” he said.
From a cluster to a charity
Now, once the food is at these cluster kitchens, how can it logistically get to charities that are feeding the hungry? Enter Feeding San Diego and its CEO Vince Hall.
“This [program] wouldn’t happen if we didn’t have a partner like Vince,” Food & Nutrition Services Director Gary Petill declared.
The massive hunger relief organization provides food and resources to a network of more than 260 neighborhood partners, serving approximately 63,000 people each week. Hall worked with Food & Nutrition Services and the Feeding San Diego staff to take SDUSD’s compiled extra food and distribute it among that existing network.
“They make the process feasible,” Hall said of SDUSD’s cluster concept.
Hall and Brody aren’t the only ones appreciating this new way of sustainability. Brody notes that the individual school cafeteria employees have jumped on board as well.
“They bought right into the system. They know we’re doing the right thing for the right reasons,” Brody said. He laughed about the most common response he received, which was “well, it’s about time!”