BioCycle August 2006, Vol. 47, No. 8, p. 20
Between cleaning out the district’s refrigerators before holidays and summer vacation, and saving cooked meals that weren’t consumed, Portland Public Schools has given more than 12 tons of edible food to area hunger programs.
WHEN school let out on June 14, Portland (Oregon) Public Schools did what everyone else does when they go on a long vacation: It cleaned out the refrigerator. In this case, its 91 refrigerators. But instead of tossing the edible food into the trash, the district donated thousands of pounds to ten nonprofit organizations that feed the hungry and homeless.
This food donation program, called “Fork It Over!,” was created in June 2004 by Metro, the regional government that oversees garbage and recycling programs in the Portland area, to get edible food to people who need it – and keep it out of the landfill. Since the district began participating in Fork It Over! in December 2004, it has donated more than 12 tons (24,000 pounds) of food.
“The district is committed to getting food to people who need it, instead of trashing it. Why not? It makes the best sense, for everyone,” says Nancy Bond, the district’s resource conservation specialist. Bond has won awards for her creative and effective ways to reduce, reuse and recycle, and save the district money. In fact, her programs have saved the district nearly $3 million since 1999. Portland Public Schools (PPS) is the only school district regularly participating in the program.
“Any school that has excess edible food to donate participates,” says Jane-Clair Kerin, the AmeriCorps member who has coordinated the district’s program this past school year. “They select perishable, prepared or fresh foods whose expiration date falls before school resumes, or food that already has been reheated and can’t be served again in the school cafeterias.” Her job is to find the nonprofits that can use the food, match them to the schools that have food to donate, and record the weight of the food the agencies receive.
The district’s director of nutrition services, Kristi Obbink, educates school food-service staff about how to reduce waste, what to donate, and how to package and store it. She also coordinates the pick-ups at the schools. The district chooses agencies that want to use the food, can collect it between 2 and 4 p.m., can handle the donated food safely, and will give the district data on the volume of donated food and other feedback about the program.
School kitchen staff clean out their coolers just before the Thanksgiving, winter, and spring breaks, and at end of the school year. The food is boxed and clearly labeled “For Donation,” and then refrigerated. Agency drivers arrive at the specified time, and transfer the food to their own containers, and then head back to their meal programs.
While the annual food donations are significant, they represent less than one percent of the volume of food PPS serves. The district’s Nutrition Services program feeds more than 20,000 students each school day with balanced, nutritious meals (breakfast, lunch, after-school snacks and supper), including more than 12,000 students who qualify under federal guidelines for free and reduced priced meals. Thus, while one percent is good stewardship of public resources, for a food service operation as large as PPS’s, it represents a significant value to society both in service to the needy and avoided landfill costs.
A TRIPLE WIN
Fork It Over! is a triple win – for hungry people, the community and PPS. One of the most active participating agencies, St. Vincent dePaul, is a Catholic charity that focuses on helping feed the hungry and homeless. The organization runs a perishable food recovery program, a food bank, and a restaurant for the hungry called Vincent’s Café. St. Vincent’s joined the district’s Fork It Over! program in December 2004. They dispatch two refrigerated trucks to collect food from the schools. Staff weighs and then serves it, or repacks it into individual-sized meals that are frozen for future distribution. Perishables such as milk and yogurt are served in Vincent’s Café the day after pick-up.
“From the beginning of the program, we have collected 16,404 pounds (over eight tons) of food,” notes Sharon Hills, director of development for St. Vincent dePaul. “The program works very well for us. All of the food is fresh and is used within a very short period of time.”
Other agencies are equally as enthusiastic. “This is a fantastic idea,” says Angela Pratt, receptionist at New Avenues for Youth, a Portland nonprofit that helps homeless young people under the age of 20. The organization offers day services (such as meals, showers, and arts and crafts programs) for up to 40 people per day, as well as transitional housing for up to 24 youths, an alternative school in conjunction with PPS, job training, and other social services.
New Avenues for Youth has participated in the district’s Fork It Over! program since last Thanksgiving. Staff picks up the donated food, and serves it immediately in its day-service program. The schools’ donations are a big help. Pratt says that “food is such a large part of our budget, so we’re always trying to find more food donations.”
According to Jennifer Erickson, senior planner at Metro, the three-county, 25-city, Portland metropolitan region landfills about 180,000 tons of food waste every year; half was probably edible before being tossed. That’s enough wasted food to fill an area the size of the Rose Garden Arena each year. And disposing of it is expensive: At $73/ton, it costs about $13 million to truck to the landfill and bury it.
That reality is why Metro has tested a variety of food recovery programs since 1996. Fork It Over! is the result. According to Erickson, 65 businesses and institutions have signed up to participate as donors and 150 food rescue agencies are listed in the Fork It Over! database. Fork It Over! is designed to make it easy to donate and to clear up misinformation about donation.
“Donating perishable food is safe,” Erickson says. “Donors are protected by Good Samaritan laws and food rescue agencies follow the same strict food handling protocols as any other food business. They, above all, want to ensure that their clients are given wholesome and healthy food.”
Adds Erickson: “It’s safe, simple and the right thing to do for our community,” she says. “The key to Portland Public Schools’ success is the dedication of Nancy Bond and their AmeriCorps members, and the fabulous implementation by the schools.”
The program is a clear winner for PPS, too. “Through Fork It Over!, we’ve saved the district nearly $1,500 in disposal costs, but it’s not about the money; it’s about the best use of precious resources,” says Bond, who also chairs the city of Portland’s Solid Waste Advisory Committee. “We’d like to do even more. Ideally, we’d like to donate all of our extra edible food, and compost all of our nonedible food.”
“We’re always exploring new opportunities. For instance, when the district closed our central kitchen in 2005 as a cost-saving measure, we made a huge, one-time donation of almost 22.6 tons (45,195 pounds) of canned foods, flour, sugar, frozen goods and similar items to the Oregon Food Bank. Also, every week, the district donates an average of 75 to 100 pounds of excess food from the cafeteria in the Blanchard Education Service Center to Blanchet House, which provides about 700 to 800 meals per day to hungry and homeless people.”
Occasionally, the district’s Nutrition Services Department also makes special contributions, such as approximately 4,000 pounds of pudding from a recall because the pop-top on the containers was too sharp. “In addition, a few schools compost some of their food waste on-site, and use the compost in their gardens,” adds Bond. “Some schools also have a ‘no thank you’ table, where students put packaged foods they’ve decided not to eat. Other students then can eat them, or the school can serve them another time. The district also has tried larger-scale worm composting, but we weren’t satisfied with the results. Fork It Over! is one thing we can do. And it works!”
Marnie McPhee is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon, specializing in resource conservation, renewable energy, organic agriculture and education. For more information on the programs discussed in this article, contact Portland Public Schools – Nancy Bond, 503-916-2000 ext 4279, firstname.lastname@example.org; Fork It Over! – Jennifer Erickson, Metro, 503-797-1647, ericksonj@ metro.dst.or.us, www.forkitover.org.
SCHOOLS LINK KIDS, FOOD AND SUSTAINABILITY
FORK It Over! is just one of many integrated food/gardening/health programs in Portland (Oregon) Public Schools (PPS). Today, two-thirds of the schools in the district have gardens; at least a dozen raise edible crops. Students help out in all of them – and, when available, enjoy the fresh produce! Twenty-two schools also have naturescapes, which feature hardy native plants that need less water and maintenance – and save the district thousands of dollars each year. Several of these schools integrate a portion of their compostable cafeteria waste into the gardens via traditional composting; others have vermicomposting projects. (See http://www.sellwood.pps.k12.or.us and http://www. glencoe.pps.k12.or.us.)
It’s likely there will be more school gardens in Portland, thanks to passage of the School Health and Wellness Policy by the PPS School Board in June. The goal of the policy is “to help students learn, establish and maintain lifelong healthy eating and physical activity patterns.”
These school gardening projects are linked to curricula. Several are sprouting through a new collaboration with Portland State University’s (PSU) graduate program in sustainability, which is called the Portland International Initiative for Leadership in Ecology, Culture and Learning (www.piiecl.pdx.edu). PSU students partner with PPS schools to establish hands-on teaching gardens that also provide food for some students and their families. PPS and PSU also develop curricula about how to grow nutritious and affordable foods
Portland’s fertile and renowned sustainability community links with PPS students in myriad other ways to explore food/health/sustainability. For instance, students visit Zenger Farm (www.zengerfarm.org) in Southeast Portland. This former dairy is a working farm/classroom that showcases a broad range of approaches to sustainability, from water catchment and on-site storm water management to vermicomposting, green building and solar energy technologies. Zenger Farm staff works closely with PPS teachers to develop and deliver curricula that link soil to food, diet and health. Kids love the hands-on, on-farm experiences.
PPS also is partnering with Ecotrust, a regional sustainability organization, on a comprehensive pilot project at one elementary school in inner Southeast Portland. Inspired by the work of Alice Waters of the famed Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley, California, PPS and Ecotrust have hired a professional chef to turn fresh organic ingredients from a Portland-area farm into healthy, homemade dishes kids actually will eat. As data from this year-old program become available, popular items eventually may appear in cafeterias throughout the district.