‘Sharing tables’ taking off, reducing waste

‘Sharing tables’ taking off, reducing waste

School Committee member Erin Dube, shown here with students in the COZ after-school program at Potter-Burns Elementary School Monday, has been a proponent of reducing food waste in Pawtucket through having students give their unwanted items to others. By the end of this school year, Aramark will have shared procedures in place for all local schools. Students, pictured from left, are Devin Carney, Maliah Wojcik, and Christina Baker.
New coolers will expand the program this month

PAWTUCKET – A viral video detailing how an Indiana school district is turning unused food into frozen weekend meals for students is grabbing plenty of national attention, but Pawtucket is pushing forward with its own effort to cut down on food waste and make sure hungry children are properly fed.

The city’s ongoing implementation of “sharing tables,” previously an informal method for allowing students to take food discarded by classmates, has taken a step forward with an expansion to more schools this year. Starting April 22, food service provider Aramark will be adding ice packs and soft-shell coolers, allowing more items to be saved and given to students who need or want them.

Erin Dube, head of the Pawtucket School Committee’s policy subcommittee, has been the key force behind the changes, according to school officials. She told The Breeze she grew concerned after seeing students in the after-school Child Opportunity Zone, or COZ, being given snack boxes and taking only one item out to eat before throwing the rest in the trash. An item she recalls being thrown out frequently was unopened bags of Cheez-Its.

Dube said she typically sees the most waste happening during the free breakfast program and after-school COZ program, and doesn’t see much being thrown out at all during lunch.

This effort is all about reducing waste in the lower grades, she said, as high school students already do a lot of informal trading of food among themselves. There are generally way more options for lunch, she said.

Dube and her subcommittee talked to Aramark representatives last month about developing a formalized process that complies with federal guidelines. The edict is clear that the company should discourage food waste. Some procedures will be easy to roll out, she said, but others will be more difficult and will require research into best practices elsewhere.

All precautions are taken, Dube said, meaning items such as yogurt can’t be saved for hours unless they are properly stored.

By the end of this year, Dube said she and others want to see every school with firm procedures in place for saving food. School board members changed the wellness policy on food waste last December.

“The Pawtucket School Department will actively work to limit food waste by utilizing such tools as effective planning and sharing tables in the cafeteria in accordance with the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) policy Guidance on the Food Donation Program in Child Nutrition Programs,” states the revised policy.

With district policy changed, school officials are now turning to procedure, determining with Aramark what the federal guidelines are for saving food and how to implement them.

There is no financial savings to the district by reducing food waste, said Dube.

Though the primary wins here are in reducing waste, students also benefit in getting more food if they need it, said Dube. Some might simply be hungrier than others, she said.

Aramark Food Service Director Josh Brochu said the sharing table effort is something Pawtucket has been doing for a while, but not at every school.

Once students come back from April vacation, the coolers will be in place across the district, allowing students to leave items such as cheese sticks and yogurts. Previously only very specific allowable items were left in a box.

“It should help prevent more waste,” said Brochu, adding that this effort will ensure more students “don’t just take it and waste it.”

In some schools, the coolers will also allow transportation of some packaged items to school nurse offices, where nurses can give them to students if they feel it’s warranted.

Brochu said he is meeting with staff to explain the exact items that can be saved.

He said this program is great because it allows students who are only allowed one meal each for breakfast and lunch to have extra food if they need it. Students have unlimited access to a fresh fruit and vegetable bar, but if they want to buy an extra a la carte item, they have to pay for it, even if they’re on the free or reduced-price meal program. By allowing them to eat food left by classmates, it gives them more options such as milk or cheese sticks.

Asked about whether leaving more food items for children to take as they desire contributes to added obesity, Brochu said he doesn’t believe so. These are typically healthier options and the district must adhere to certain portion sizes. A four-ounce yogurt cup “is not going to put anyone over the edge,” he said.

Once the district officially starts its new cooler program on April 22, Aramark representatives will be able to track exactly how much waste is being reduced by weighing poundage thrown away. He said adding the coolers will make a significant difference. Incorporating coolers, ice packs, signage, and training of staff will help make this a “routine staple of what we do,” he said.