school food waste, sharing table

Students at Butler University Laboratory School 60 put their unwanted food and milk on this table to be donated to the Mid-North Food Pantry. (Photo/Tyler Fenwick)

A recent study conducted by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) found Indianapolis schools are apparently doing better than others around the country when it comes to reducing food waste, but the numbers are still difficult to comprehend.

The six local schools that participated in the 33-day study were on track to waste an average of 8,063 pounds of food and 3,968 milk cartons per year.

That’s 17.9 pounds of food and 17.4 milk cartons per student.

The average for the study, which included 46 schools in eight states, was 39.2 pounds of food wasted per student.

“It’s just shameful to watch food go into a trash can when it could be going somewhere else,” said Butler University Laboratory School 60 Principal Ron Smith.

School 60, which is part of Indianapolis Public Schools, participated in the study along with IPS Schools 84 and 91, Orchard School, Oaklandon Elementary School in Lawrence and Noble Crossing Education in Noblesville.

Beginning this school year, every IPS elementary and middle school has at least one sharing cart, where students can put food or drinks they don’t want and other students can pick items they do want, according to Dena Bond, the district’s food service director.

The sharing cart is the starting point of the district’s food recovery program. Schools with a food pantry can also keep the food, or it can be donated to an off-site food pantry. Administrators also can send food home to students in need.

Bond said she’s aware of 33 schools that make donations of some kind.

Jim Poyser, executive director of Earth Charter Indiana, helped lead the food waste study locally and said he was surprised to go to a school on pizza day and see students apparently didn’t care for the pizza.

That’s something Bond pays attention to at the district level because recovering food is “the last stop in trying to prevent food waste.”

She said it’s important to give students food options they actually enjoy in order to limit the likelihood that students pick something in the lunch line but end up not eating it.

Some schools also partner with Food Rescue, a Carmel-based organization that helps schools limit food waste and offers a tracking tool so administrators and students can trace their impact.

School 60 was the first school to begin food recovery in 2016, so Smith, who’s been at the school for 10 years, said he didn’t necessarily learn anything from the waste study numbers that he didn’t already know anecdotally.

The school also has a garden, so some food is composted and used there.

Most of the school’s leftover food is donated to the Mid-North Food Pantry across the alley. A letter the food pantry’s leadership sent School 60 said more than 12,400 pounds of food was donated in 2019.

“Because of donors like you,” the letter read, “food insecurity in Indianapolis is a problem we can overcome together.”

The amount of waste that comes from school cafeterias seems to be something more people are paying attention to now compared to when Smith got to School 60 a decade ago.

“I think people are more aware of the issue of food waste, which is a healthy thing,” he said. “That includes kids. It’s not just adults.”

If enough schools and school districts take food waste seriously, Poyser believes it could be one more way to push back against an impending climate crisis because there would be less methane produced from rotting food.

“I think it’s one of those — and there’s a pun here — low-hanging fruit actions we can take to tackle waste and address the climate crisis,” he said.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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