A Florida pastor and retired teacher support the food sharing programs in Polk Schools. They say some children desperately need items being thrown out, unopened, by other students.
LAKELAND — Every day in school cafeterias across Polk County, children dump hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds of unopened, unwanted, uneaten food into garbage cans after breakfast and lunch.
Melissa Stump, associate pastor at First United Methodist Church, and retired schoolteacher Kay Kasser would like to see that stop. They want Polk County public schools to adopt a practice utilized in some area schools and other Florida school districts: a share table.
A share table is a spot where students can place unopened, prepackaged food and drink items that they don't want, making them available to other students who would like to eat or drink them.
“Much food is wasted — unopened milk thrown away, fruits and vegetables untouched, thrown away — that some children desperately need,” Stump told the school board at a recent meeting. “They need it in order to do well at school and in order to be the best person they can be. I would like to see this opportunity be given so that students can be fed.”
Kasser is part of the Combee Connection Ministry through Highland Park Church of the Nazarene, taking approximately 1,400 to 2,000 pounds of food per week to families in the Combee Road area who do not have transportation and are unable to go to food banks.
“The food scarcity and the food insecurity is heartbreaking in our county,” Kasser told board members “What we see are children that are just so incredibly hungry — when we pull up, they're in the boxes before we can even get them out of the cars.”
Kasser acknowledged that many children are part of a program called kidsPACK, which sends food home with students for weekend meals.
“You may have two children (from one home) in the school system that receive kidsPACK, but there are two to four to five children not yet in the school system that they share it with when they take it home,” Kasser said. “And so when you put three children, four children on one can of ravioli, that's not much.”
A document provided by the Polk County Public Health Department shows the district and health department have been talking about the issue since at least 2014.
School district spokesman Jason Geary said share tables are allowed, provided the school has a policy approved by the health department meeting all health code requirements. Some of those requirements include:
• Active monitoring of the share table by adults.
• A temperature-controlled environment for milk, maintaining it at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or colder.
• Log sheets documenting the temperature of the milk environment every 30-45 minutes.
• Removal of food for the share table prior to a student being seated.
Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd told Stump and Kasser that the district would work with the nutrition department to try to push out a share table program countywide.
“Nutritious food fuels student learning. Polk County Public Schools is committed to ensuring that all students have the food they need to grow, learn, thrive and lead happy, healthy lives,” Byrd said in a press release. “We're currently studying the amount of food waste our district produces. As part of this study, we are looking specifically at share tables as a solution for improving students' access to nutritious food.
"We plan to complete our study by the end of the school year, and will then move into the process of developing policy or procedures to help our schools implement share tables. This is an important initiative that will positively impact the lives of our children.”
Geary said the district is looking into whether students would be able to take food home from the share tables. Some school districts put unused food in sealed containers and send them home.
“The policy provided by the health department does not allow for students to take non-perishable food items home without an approved variance,” Geary said. “We are still exploring how the district could implement share tables, so a decision has not yet been made about whether to seek such a variance and what such a variance would require.”
Stump said she is hoping the food can be taken home, instead of simply winding up in the garbage.
“So not only that students have the opportunity to eat at school, can they take an apple home, can they take some milk home, can they take a banana home, because they're hungry at night also,” she said. "Just from my own experience in talking with people in our community, and from years ago when I taught special education, I know some of my students that came to school every day had not eaten since lunch the day before — and I know that happens in our community also.”
This story originally published to theledger.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network via the Florida Wire. The Florida Wire, which runs across digital, print and video platforms, curates and distributes Florida-focused stories. For more Florida stories, visit here, and to support local media throughout the state of Florida, consider subscribing to your local paper.