Monte Bella Elementary students eat their school provided lunch in the cafeteria on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. (Photo: David Rodriguez/ The Salinas Californian)
A little after noon Thursday, dozens of sixth-graders at Monte Bella Elementary School filed into the cafeteria, chattering with each other. They grabbed clean green plastic trays and stood in line, waiting for the cafeteria workers to dish out chicken fajitas, corn, breadsticks, apples and more.
Not all of that food will get eaten, though, and over the last few years, Alisal Union School District parents began to raise concerns about food waste. In response, they began a food recycling program to not only reduce food waste but also combat student hunger.
Areli Colin is a sixth-grade student at Monte Bella. This is her last year at the school; next year she will head to middle school at La Paz. At home, sometimes she helps her mother make pambazos, a sandwich typically made with chorizo and potatoes, dunked in salsa.
“Food is something we can run out of,” she said. “Many people work hard to grow all of our food, and there’s many more people in need. I think it’s better to share our food instead of just throwing it out.”
At school Areli says she regularly contributes her leftovers to the recycling program. Fruits, mostly, but she has also recycled uneaten, unwrapped sandwiches or bags of chips when she didn’t want them, she said.
Areli said she sees a lot less garbage in the garbage can now that the recycling program is in full swing, and thinks that is a sign of the program’s success.
“In this district’s culture, they think that it’s a sin to waste food,” said Alisal Union Director of Nutrition Services, Wellness and Purchasing, Irene Vargas.
The “Traveling Apple Policy’ allows students to take whole, uneaten cafeteria food home for the first time in the district’s history.
Fruits, vegetables, grains and packaged foods are eligible for recycling, according to the policy’s guidelines. Students place them in colorful cartons hanging on a multi-tiered wire rack at the back of the lunchroom, near the trash cans.
“It does two things,” Vargas said. “It lets the children know they can recycle the food, and if there’s a need, they can take it home and eat it at home or throughout the day.”
Nearly all schools within the city of Salinas are on 100% free and reduced lunch, as it is considered a high-need area.
More than 17% of Salinas’s residents live at or below the poverty line, well above the state average of 12.8%, 2018 data from the U.S. census estimates.
In a 2014 health interview survey, the Monterey County Health Department found 34 % of residents cannot afford enough food. In Salinas, a single woman with children paid 37% of her income on food, with close to 4,900 families affected.
In California, about 62% of low-income children ages 0 to 5, 58% of those ages 6 to 12, and 44%of those ages 13 to 17 received SNAP benefits. Nearly half of all CalFresh recipients are children.
Many students at Monte Bella are excited about the implementation of the program. Even the ones who don’t grab food from the bin themselves will often participate by donating food they are too full to eat.
Other districts have similar policies in response to student hunger or food waste. Chualar, for example, a small town of less than 2,000 people about 15 minutes south of Salinas, allows students to take home any whole, uneaten fruit left on a table near the front of the lunchroom meant specifically for food recycling.
At the end of the day, the food that has been left behind may be washed and returned to the lunch line at the front of the room.
A young boy stands in the middle of the cafeteria as he eats some cantaloupe from his green plastic food tray on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. (Photo: David Rodriguez/ The Salinas Californian)
If students want an extra apple, bag of chips, milk, or other item with lunch, they are welcome to take it off the recycled food cart, or to pocket it as they head out the door to recess.
Milk cannot be taken home, but can be recycled and ingested within the school day — the school has come up with a system where milk can be placed on bags of ice in recycling bins, said Vargas, pointing to the bottom rack, where cartons of milk would be placed by students on their way out the door.
“The purpose is to reduce waste,” said Vargas. “The Federal Government realizes that students may not have enough time to eat all their food and has made changes in regards to food waste and child nutrition program sustainability. The Traveling Apple policy allows districts to reuse fresh uncut produce and packaged foods.”
The National School Lunch Program serves 30 million students every day. In the Alisal Elementary School District, 7,900 participate daily in the school’s lunch program.
Jaylene Guzman dropped her apple in the food recycling container for fruits and vegetables as she headed out of the cafeteria to recess with her friend. Jaylene’s parents often told her not to waste food at home, she said, and so she believed it was important to ensure all the food on her plate got eaten — even if it wasn’t by her.
And the one food she would always recycle, if she found it on her plate? Baby carrots.
“I don’t like them,” she said.
Monte Bella students line up to get their school lunch on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. (Photo: David Rodriguez/ The Salinas Californian)
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