Teachers and staff refer to them as “sharing baskets.”
The baskets sit on a table in designated area at East Aurora High School cafeteria, as well as at the Fred Rodgers Magnet Academy and three middle schools, Waldo, Simmons and Cowherd.
On some days the baskets don’t hold much, while other days they are filled with fruit juice, fresh fruit, and cartons of milk.
The baskets are part of District 131’s food recovery program, now in its fourth year.
“When our district implemented the community breakfast and lunch program for our students, we noticed that a lot of food was going to waste,” said Annette Johnson, school board president at District 131. “I reached out to Simon Seibert from Sodexo and we made food recovery a reality.”
Food recovery is a plan for making sure that little or no food goes to waste within the district. When students cannot finish or choose not to finish their food, they have an alternative to throwing it out, through the food recovery program.
Items in the sharing baskets are meant for any student to take, and many times students will take fruit from the basket and eat it as a snack later in the day.
At the end of the lunch periods, however, the remaining food items are recovered for local food pantries.
Recovered items are transported to Waldo Middle School, and then taken by district personnel twice a week to the Aurora Interfaith Food Pantry and Marie Wilkinson Food Pantry.
“We also save and share our leftover heated meals,” said Johnson. “These are frozen and donated.”
She’s referring to another component of the program where all leftover heated food that is of good quality—from Magnet Academy, the middle schools, and the high school, is first cooled and then frozen, following Sodexo’s strict food safety procedures.
The frozen food from the various buildings is collected and made available to Wayside Cross Ministries, a nonprofit that picks up recovered food at Waldo once a week for use in their kitchen.
On a recent day, George Bavas from Wayside arrived at Waldo for a pick up.
“This helps us feed about 100 hungry men, three times a day,” said Bavas, as he loaded boxes of recovered food. “With a very small food budget we appreciate the District saving it for us.”
For Johnson and others, the district’s food recovery program is an important and tangible way to share resources within the community.
According to the National Resources Defense Council, 40% of the food in the United States is never eaten. But at the same time, one in eight Americans struggles to put enough food on the table.
Simon Seibert, general manager for Sodexo, the food service supplier for District 131’s high school and middle schools, says the program has made a tremendous impact.
“Between all of the schools, we recover approximately 17,000 pounds of food each year,” said Seibert.
As a result of the progress made at District 131, Seibert says other school districts have started similar programs with Sodexo and facilitated by the Northern Illinois Food Bank.
Those districts include West Aurora District 129, Geneva School District 304, and Belvidere School District 100, with more to be added soon.
“But it all started with East Aurora,” Seibert said, adding that a national nonprofit, Food Recovery Network, has even recognized the district. “East Aurora District 131 is the only school district in the country designated as ‘Food Recovery Verified.”
Seibert added that officials at Northern Illinois Food Bank believe school district food recovery programs, like the one at East Aurora, have the potential to close the gap between what their clients need and what the organization is able to procure to fill those needs.
Johnson admits that food recovery is a passion for her. “A tremendous amount of food is thrown away daily in our country. We’re proud of this program because food recovery is a way for our district to impact our community of Aurora in a unique way.”