[Ed Note: There may be a local ordinance here in Houston, of which I and the district were unaware when I wrote this post back in August, that prevents donation of previously-served food. I'm looking into this and will report back.]
My fellow HISD/Aramark Food Services Parent Advisory Committee member, Lisa Murry, writes a great blog called First Class Breakfast? which reports on the new, universal in-class breakfast program instituted in our district last year.
Because breakfast is not an “offer vs. serve” meal (i.e., students must take all parts of the meal for it to be reimbursable by the federal government), there’s a huge amount of waste, and one of the most valuable aspects of Lisa’s blog has been her photos of the untouched food routinely discarded by the students from the breakfast – tables full of sealed milk and juice cartons, uneaten whole fruit and unopened packaged foods all headed for the trash (see, e.g., here and here).
More than one parent has wondered aloud why this food can’t be donated to charity, but our district has maintained the position that donation is legally prohibited. I was at a PTO meeting where representatives of HISD food services explained that the regulations were in place due to health concerns: children — possibly carrying colds and other viruses — had touched the food, so that even if it was unopened, it still could spread illness.
That explanation never quite sat right with me. After all, every item we buy in the supermarket has been touched by many, many hands, and no one is screening any of those handlers for illnesses. Nonetheless, I let the issue drop. Then a few weeks ago, an Indiana reader sent me this:
I teach at a school in a suburb of Indianapolis, IN. The amount of waste in our lunchroom makes me physically ill. I’m not talking about half eaten portions of pasta, I’m talking about kids throwing away unopened, individually wrapped food such as goldfish,animal cookies, yogurt, etc. Also, when the cafeteria serves whole apples, etc., as a fresh fruit, hundreds of whole, untouched apples go into the trash. Last year, I tried to start a collection program for foods like these to donate to our local food bank. Basically, at clean up time, I would go around the cafe and ask kids if I could have the unopened packages of food they were not going to eat. I was told I could get in huge trouble for doing this. There are guidelines that say that you cannot take food from the kids’ lunches, even if they want to give it. So, we stopped. Yesterday was a goldfish package day again. I sat with my own first grade twins for a while at lunch and collected unopened packages to keep in my desk for after school snacks. It just kills me to see all of this food getting thrown away.
That email inspired me to write about food waste, although my only intention was to decry this seemingly irrational regulation prohibiting donation to charity. But first I needed to find the regulation in question, so I contacted my district’s food services to find out more. My contact there was kind enough to investigate for me and then told me that the USDA had apparently revised its policy and that “districts may now release leftover food to charitable nonprofit organizations under the following conditions . . . ” I’ve attached these conditions in a Word document here but to summarize, a district has to (1) take care not to create waste in the first place by over-ordering; (2) be sure that health codes are followed, and (3) enter into what looks like a pretty standard written agreement with the charity.
While I’m not doubting my district’s claim that the USDA revised its policy on food waste donation at some point, I do wonder when this policy change actually occurred. I did some searching on the USDA website and found documents going back as far as the mid-90’s that seem to indicate that food donation was acceptable to the USDA even back then. (I even found this document from 1998 showing that the USDA was offering detailed guidance — and at that time, even some financial support — for food donation programs at schools.) But there may be details about the history of the food donation policy that I’m missing.
Another interesting fact I learned from the USDA’s site is that all fifty states have “Good Samaritan” laws in place which protect donors of “gleaned” food from liability. That is, absent gross negligence (like donating obviously spoiled food) or an actual intent to do harm (e.g., tampered-with food), a donor will face no liability if the donated food does cause illness. (Here’s a short, readable summary of Texas’s Good Samaritan law.)
So as far as I can tell, there are now no obstacles preventing a district anywhere in the country from donating uneaten food. The only other question is, does anyone want it?
To answer that question, this morning I called the Houston Food Bank, an organization which feeds over 800,000 food-insecure Houstonians each year. When I described the types of food HISD schools might be able to donate from our breakfast program, I was told by a HFB spokesperson that while the juice and milk couldn’t be donated (because there is no way to verify that it’s been kept at a controlled temperature), all of the nonperishable items like whole fruit, graham crackers, etc. are more than welcome.
So, bottom line: if you’re alarmed by food waste in your cafeteria and are being told by your district that you can’t legally donate school food, push back. Ask some more questions, and send this post if you need to.
On my end, I’m going to see if I can rally support for a coordinated donation program in my own district. It’s important to remember that the district would first need to enter into a written contract with the charity in question, and I do realize that collecting and transporting food would take a real commitment from school volunteers. But why not involve the students themselves? Let one child be appointed each morning to gather up uneaten food and place it in a box outside the door for a parent volunteer to collect.
I can think of no better way to remind our children that there are those less fortunate than themselves, and to make a meaningful reduction in food waste that many parents regard as unconscionable.