On Fridays, more than 100 students in three Indiana districts take home two backpacks. One is packed with their usual school supplies. The second is insulated and filled with eight frozen meals made up of food that would have otherwise been thrown away.
The backpacks filled with weekend meals is one of the newest ways that schools are battling food insecurity and hunger among students.
“We know that there’s a huge need of food insecurity in our county,” said Natalie Bickel, the supervisor of student services and the attendance officer of the Elkhart Community school district in Elkhart, Ind. “It just makes sense when you think of how much waste there is.”
Food rescue is the main goal of Cultivate, the Indiana nonprofit that has partnered with the districts. It encourages restaurants, grocery stores, and other community partners to donate edible food that would otherwise get tossed. These are not leftovers but instead meals that were prepared and never served.
The food is taken to Cultivate in a refrigerated truck, logged, dated, and placed in a cooler. A team of employees and volunteers package the food, adding labels that include descriptions of the meal, cooking instructions, and potential allergens.
The weekend-meals program began this year as a partnership between Cultivate and the South Bend Community district, where 70 percent of students received free and reduced-price lunches in 2017, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Funded by a grant from the Kelly Cares Foundation, the Madison STEAM Academy, the elementary school where the program is being piloted in that district, identified kindergartners and 1st graders who were food insecure.
Some of those students’ families did not have microwaves to heat the meals, said Deb Martin, the principal of Madison STEAM Academy. The school was able to give them microwaves through donations from Best Buy and the Kelly Cares Foundation.
Researchers are studying the program to see if it affects student attendance and reading achievement. Martin said attendance has already increased.
The Elkhart district started the program soon after South Bend, with one change: Rather than using grant funding, Elkhart donates cafeteria food to Cultivate three days a week.
In 2017, 62 percent of students in the Elkhart district received free and reduced-price lunch, according to Casey data.
“Cultivate would love to be in every school, but for that to happen, the school [districts] have to be involved, and they have to get more of the community to be involved,” said Randy Z, the general manager and co-founder of Cultivate. “We can’t fix the world unless they’re going to contribute to us or find more food suppliers.”
Cultivate also serves a small number of students at Madison Elementary School as part of its partnership with the Penn-Harris-Madison district.
“There’s a lot more than just the kids at my schools or the kids at Elkhart schools,” said Martin. “I think that this is going to start a new movement of not wasting food.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as Hungry Students Taking Home Uneaten Meals