Indiana school turns excess lunches into take-home meals

An Indiana school system is testing a new program that turns food that would normally go to waste into meals for children who need them.

As part of a pilot program, 20 students at Woodland Elementary School in Elkhart went home on Friday with an insulated backpack stuffed with eight frozen meals to help them get through the weekend.

“We had to start a little small because we weren’t sure if we would have enough food,” said Natalie Bickel, the supervisor of student services for Elkhart Community Schools. “The kids were thrilled, staff were crying, kids were so excited.”

Bickel said that 64% of the more than 12,000 students in the district are eligible for free and reduced price lunch. She said the new program is just getting started, but it seems to be going well. She said she’d love to expand the program to all 21 schools in the district.

“That would be my dream,” she said.

The school partnered with Cultivate, a “food rescue” group in nearby South Bend, to prepare the meals, which include a protein, a vegetable and a starch.

The group comes to five Elkhart school production kitchens on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to collect food that was prepared but not served. That food had been going into the trash.

Bickel said cafeteria staff stood up and burst into applause when the plan was announced.

“It’s heartbreaking, you know, seeing our kids hungry and not being able to do anything about it,” she said.

Cultivate is also running pilot programs with two South Bend schools.

“It’s been a long-term mission for myself,” Cultivate co-founder Randy Z said. “I was the kid who went home with no food and didn’t eat on the weekends when I was younger.”

Cultivate gets food from local caterers, hospitals, casinos and other businesses. The University of Notre Dame athletic department and the South Bend Cubs minor league baseball team also donate unused food.

“With the school we combine their food with other food we’ve rescued from some of the best chefs in our region,” Z said. “A meal could consist of a vegetable from the school, protein from the University of Notre Dame and a starch from the Four Winds Casino.”

Cultivate calls it food rescue, because they’re saving perfectly good food from going to the landfill.

For example, a catering company may cook 5,000 dinners for a banquet, but only a fraction of the guests show up. The caterer can’t do anything with the rest of the food, so it would go into the trash.

Cultivate’s partnership with one major catering company saved 50,000 pounds of food — that’s 25 tons — from going to waste in seven months.

Cultivate is a relatively new group and will celebrate its second year as a not for profit in July. It has a staff of three people and 400 volunteers who turn the donated food into healthy meals for people dealing with food insecurity.

Z said he’s getting calls from area schools and restaurants that want to get involved and from people in other parts of the United States who want to start their own programs.

“When you have a child that doesn’t know why they’re hungry and doesn’t understand it and has no say in why they’re hungry or anything like that, it’s like, you can send them home those meals and they don’t have to worry about anything,” Z said. “They come back to school energized and refreshed and ready to go and it just improves them all across the board. It’s just a great thing.”