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(Photo provided by IPS)

Seventh-grader Ella Comerford-Barnett has been concerned about food waste and recycling for almost half of her life. At the age of eight, she began volunteering with Youth Power Indiana, a local organization that encourages children to get involved in climate leadership and teaches them how to treat the Earth. 

Since then, she and her family have been recycling and composting all of their food and waste at home, in an effort to do her part. But after some time, she realized that wasn’t enough. At her school, Rousseau McClellan Montessori School 91, she realized most of her peers were putting food on their trays only for uneaten and unopened food to end up in the garbage. 

“We didn’t have any recycling whatsoever,” Comerford-Barnett said. “So, a lot food waste that could’ve been given to a better cause was getting thrown away.” 

Comerford-Barnett knew there had to be another option for the unwanted food from her peers. So, she enlisted classmate Sophie Raes, who also recycles and composts at home, and they got to work. 

The school partnered with Food Rescue, a local non-profit that shows schools, corporate offices and restaurants how to package their leftover food for donation at the end of the night rather than throwing it away. John Williamson, the executive director of the organization, said they especially like to partner with schools because of the impact it can have for generations.

“Our goal is to empower students to lead the food-is-not-trash movement,” he said. “The real solution to solving food waste is to teach the younger generation how to lead this and that’s what we do.”

Since starting its partnership with Indianapolis Public Schools in the fall of 2016, 26 schools have adopted some sort of food waste prevention program. At each school, the program is 100 percent student-led.

Rousseau McClellan Montessori officially began its food waste prevention program in October 2017. The school partners with Neighborhood Fellowship Church’s food pantry, Wheeler Mission and Boulevard Place Pantry. The school chose these three organizations because they’re located in the school district, allowing families with IPS students to benefit from donations. 

Comerford-Barnett and Raes had one large goal in mind when the program first launched at their school: to get their school to be officially zero waste. In order to make this possible, 90 percent of items that originally went in the garbage have to be recycled, composted or donated. Currently, the school is at 75 percent; they expect to hit 90 percent in 2019 once they have the proper tools to begin composting.   

To date, the district’s food recovery program has donated more than 3.7 million food items to pantries across Marion County in the last 18 months. The district has no plan to slow down its progress. 

“I’m proud of Ella and Sophie. They battled peers and were really determined to keep pushing and going,” school principal Kathy Lause said. “They were constantly problem solving and there are still some things that they probably want to tweak. What’s most important is that we’re getting our kids to think outside of themselves and I think that’s really powerful.”

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