FORTVILLE — The lunchroom table was stacked full — cartons of unopened milk, cups of yogurt, bags of fruit and crackers.
Eyeing the spread laid out at Fortville Elementary School — unused lunch items bound for the local soup kitchen — Kyra Davis was blown away by the students’ generosity.
Late last school year, the Fortville Elementary student council, advised by Davis, a fourth-grade teacher, piloted a food rescue program that donates packaged and unopened food items to local soup kitchens and food pantries. The program was so successful, educators are looking to expand it to all five Mt. Vernon schools this fall.
The school district is among about 50 Indiana school corporations that participate in the K-12 Food Rescue program. K-12 Food Rescue, an organization that helps to connect schools with social service agencies that can distribute packaged cafeteria food to people in need, encourages schools to donate food items that would otherwise be wasted when students don’t eat them. Annually, more than 1 billion food items are wasted in schools across the country, according to the organization, which works with more than 350 cafeterias across the state.
This year, as students at Fortville Elementary School finish eating lunch, they’ll be able to donate leftover packaged food to the local soup kitchen to help feed needy families. About 11 percent of Hancock County residents are food insecure, meaning they lack reliable access to food, according a recent report from County Health Rankings and Roadmaps.
Food service director Doris Johnson said as the school works to fill that need, she’s looking to partner with other community organizations, including Hancock Hope House and Angel Connections, that could benefit from food donations as the program expands to the district’s four other schools.
Educators hope the effort will teach students about helping those in need while providing hungry students, who can grab food from the bin for themselves, with another option for sanitary, free food.
The effort also works to reduce the methane gas, which in large quantities prevents heat from escaping the atmosphere and can lead to global warming, produced in landfills by rotting food, school officials said.
The food rescue program is a wonderful program that will benefit many Hancock County residents, said Judy Crist, a board member of the Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen. Nothing goes to waste at the soup kitchen, which has served more than 153,000 meals since it opened in 2009, Crist said, and the food donated by Mt. Vernon students will get used.
“It takes the love and compassion of the entire community to help us continue,” she said. “The kids doing this, … it teaches them to give to others who may be a little less fortunate.”
Davis said the effort at Fortville Elementary started when students expressed concern about the amount of food being thrown away in the cafeteria. They wanted to donate their leftovers to families in need in the community, she said.
Her students are learning about helping others and taking only what they can eat, she said; it’s a lesson all students in the school district and community will benefit from learning.
“We don’t want to waste any more of the things we’ve been throwing away for so long,” Davis said. “We’re not sending the food out of the county or out of the state. We’re using it in our own neighborhoods — that’s huge.”
Savannah Jouppi, a fifth-grader at Fortville Elementary who was part of the student council last year, said she’s happy to see the program available all year because she wants the school to help kids in the community who need food.
She brings her lunch every day and hasn’t had anything to donate yet this year but said if she has food items she doesn’t want, she’ll head straight for the donation bin.
Food Rescue launched at Fortville Elementary on the first day of school, and so far, vegetables are among the most popular donation items.
The other schools will follow in coming weeks as Johnson finds partners, she said. At least once a week, local Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops and community volunteers will deliver the food to the soup kitchen and other community organizations receiving the donations.