Indiana school turns leftover food into meals for needy children

An Indiana elementary school is helping needy students in a big way by working with a local food-rescue nonprofit organization to turn leftover cafeteria food into take-home meals.

Woodland Elementary School in Elkhart County and South Bend-based Cultivate started a pilot program last month that transforms food that would normally become waste into frozen meals that children in need can take home for the weekend.

"There's a peace of mind to know there's something in the fridge," Angel Null, a mother of two children who attend Woodland, told The Washington Post

Approximately 12.8 percent of Elkhart County's children between the ages of five and 17 live in poverty, the U.S. Census points out. And 64 percent of the 12,000-plus students in the school district qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, Natalie Bickel, supervisor of student services for Elkhart Community Schools, told CNN

Currently, 20 students are enrolled in Woodland's program, which provides them with insulated backpacks that carry eight frozen dishes. The meals, which normally consist of starches, proteins and vegetables, are packaged in recyclable containers. Options can range from corn beef and mashed potatoes to chicken and cabbage. 

"Mostly, we rescue food that's been made but never served by catering companies [and] large food service businesses like the school system," Cultivate co-founder Jim Conklin told WSBT

RELATED: Discover ways to reduce food waste: 

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9 Ways to Cut Back on Food Waste
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9 Ways to Cut Back on Food Waste
Keep your shelves organized so you can see everything you have. Clearly mark any perishable items with their expiration dates and label leftovers with the date you packaged them. If that sounds like too much work, try this: Only buy enough perishables to last for one week of consumption, and label your pantry shelves based on expiration dates (one month, six months, etc.)
Keep newer items in the back of the fridge so that when you reach in to grab a snack or peruse the shelf for meal ideas, you're more likely to use the items that will expire the soonest. Do the same with your pantry (especially canned goods) and items in the freezer.
Keep those leftovers fresher for longer by making sure you package them the right way. Items that can go stale (like chips and cereal) should be stored in airtight containers. Don't pack your fridge too full, as this reduces cool air flow. Know the best way to freeze different items. For some handy food storage charts, check out FoodSafety.gov.
You won't get sick of leftovers if you find different ways of preparing them. Create salads, soups, wraps and omelets when you're looking for ways to make use of ingredients that seem somewhat random. Experiment, and throw different ingredients together while you're cooking. You may just come up with your next favorite recipe.
Sit down on Sunday and draw up a plan for your meals throughout the week, making sure to use any ingredients that are due to expire soon. Planning out your meals helps you make the best use of the items you have -- and cuts back on that "What on earth am I going to make tonight?" panic.
You can freeze a lot more than you probably think you can. Milk, bread, cheese and other items can be safely and successfully frozen if you don't think you'll be able to finish them before they expire. (Or if you buy multiples on sale.) Leftovers can be frozen for instant microwavable meals when you're busy.
Some expired food can still be used as ingredients. Overripe bananas can be made into banana bread; stale bread is great for homemade croutons; slightly mushy produce can always be tossed into a smoothie.
The "use by" date on most items doesn't mean they're unsafe to eat after that time; it simply means that's the date the USDA recommends you consume them by to enjoy peak quality and freshness. Most foods will still be fresh and safe to consume for several days after this date. When in doubt, use your senses -- if it looks alright, smells and tastes OK, it's probably OK.
Make use of small scraps, spoiled foods and unusable bits by turning them into compost. If you use this to fertilize your own kitchen garden, you'll be able to save even more on groceries by growing your own fresh produce.
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Founded in the fall of 2016, Conklin's organization already serves the Madison STEAM Academy, a school nearby where 100 students are enrolled in a similar program. The nonprofit's three staff members work with nearly 400 volunteers to convert leftover food at Cultivate's facilities and redistribute it as packaged meals. To date, it has received donations from local businesses, the University of Notre Dame's athletic department and the South Bend Cubs minor league baseball team. 

Food waste has been a serious issue in the United States for some time. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that about 133 billion pounds of food from stores, restaurants and homes went to waste in 2010. In 2015, then-Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack publicly pushed for the country to reduce its food waste by 50 percent by 2030. 

Organizations in Indiana have since taken the lead. Food Rescue, for example, launched the Student Led Entrepreneurial Initiative, which encourages children to help keep track of unopened food and work with other agencies to repurpose it. Cultivate itself has also provided culinary job training and catering services to support local programs.

"It's been a long-term mission for myself," Cultivate's other founder and general manager, Randy Z, told CNN. "I was the kid who went home with no food and didn't eat on the weekends when I was younger." 

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