Helping Hands empowers students to reduce food waste, help others

Students, from left, Kate and Addy count and sort uneaten fruit from the cafeteria at Kelly Mill Elementary School in Forsyth County. The food will be donated to local food pantries. Courtesy of Kelly Mill Elementary School.

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Students, from left, Kate and Addy count and sort uneaten fruit from the cafeteria at Kelly Mill Elementary School in Forsyth County. The food will be donated to local food pantries. Courtesy of Kelly Mill Elementary School.

Wasted food is the bane of school cafeterias. No one wants unopened cartons of milk and unpeeled bananas to find a final resting place in the landfill.

However, there is a solution to keep students from tossing out the food they don’t want.

Helping Hands Ending Hunger, a Georgia-based nonprofit, has created a safe system for collecting uneaten, packaged cafeteria food, storing it on campus during the week, then redistributing the food to families in need.

The program aims to bridge the food gap for children going home over the weekend and not having enough to eat, said founder and CEO Carla Harward, a former Florida attorney now living in Chattooga County.

Dozens of schools throughout the state participate, including many in metro Atlanta, like Kelly Mill Elementary School in Forsyth County.

Kelly Mill students can opt to place unwanted packaged foods, drinks or whole fruits into collection carts before disposing of their trash following breakfast or lunch. The items are inspected, cleaned, counted and stored in an industrial refrigerator before being boxed and distributed to two or three local food pantries.

Students run the program, with selected fourth and fifth-grade ambassadors leading the way, said Principal Ron McAllister. He said the students have made it a success, along with the counselors who got it going and continue to oversee the operation.

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Kelly Mill Elementary students, from left, Ana and Ava wipe down donated food items before storing them in the refrigerator. Courtesy of Kelly Mill Elementary School

Credit: spe

Kelly Mill Elementary students, from left, Ana and Ava wipe down donated food items before storing them in the refrigerator. Courtesy of Kelly Mill Elementary School

Credit: spe

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Kelly Mill Elementary students, from left, Ana and Ava wipe down donated food items before storing them in the refrigerator. Courtesy of Kelly Mill Elementary School

Credit: spe

Credit: spe

Students like that they are helping others.

“It makes me feel really good that people who may not eat some of their food, and instead of throwing it out, they can donate it, so people who don’t have food can have that food,” said Addy, a fifth-grader.

Students count and keep data on every item collected, a math component of the school’s STEM certification, said Assistant Principal Michael Vorick.

That can be quite a haul. In April alone the school collected 245 pounds of milk, 207 pounds of juice, 102 pounds of bananas, 35 pounds of yogurt, 30 pounds of applesauce, 16 pounds of whole apples and 3 pounds of carrots.

“It can sometimes be challenging because sometimes the coolers fall apart, and you have to persevere to fix that, and you really have to think about it. But I like being in Helping Hands. I learned about it this year, and I’ve loved it,” said Caryss, a fourth-grader.

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Food is collected all week and stored in a refrigerator purchased for the Helping Hands Ending Hunger project. It will be donated to food pantries serving Forsyth County. Courtesy of Kelly Mill Elementary School

Credit: spe

Food is collected all week and stored in a refrigerator purchased for the Helping Hands Ending Hunger project. It will be donated to food pantries serving  Forsyth County. Courtesy of Kelly Mill Elementary School

Credit: spe

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Food is collected all week and stored in a refrigerator purchased for the Helping Hands Ending Hunger project. It will be donated to food pantries serving Forsyth County. Courtesy of Kelly Mill Elementary School

Credit: spe

Credit: spe

It wasn’t always possible to repurpose school meals. Harward helped change state policy prohibiting schools from re-issuing food.

“Food service rules were written with the goal of protecting our kids, and I understand that, but it’s a prime example of a policy that doesn’t think forward about the unintended consequences,” she said. “If it’s unopened and perfectly good, why are we throwing it away and filling landfills? That was my fight. That makes no sense, and finally, level heads agreed.”

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Carla Harward, founder and CEO of Helping Hands Ending Hunger. Courtesy of Carla Harward

Credit: spe

Carla Harward, founder and CEO of Helping Hands Ending Hunger. Courtesy of Carla Harward

Credit: spe

Combined ShapeCaption
Carla Harward, founder and CEO of Helping Hands Ending Hunger. Courtesy of Carla Harward

Credit: spe

Credit: spe

Harward started Helping Hands Ending Hunger to ensure the food could be stored and delivered safely. Each participating school must have a refrigerator solely for the collected items, which typically go out on Fridays.

Schools typically collect milk, juice, cheese sticks, carrots, sliced apples and whole fruit, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, muffins and bagels.

“If it’s factory packaged or packaged in a Ziploc from the cafeteria, we can get it,” Harward said. “Even food from children’s lunchboxes that’s prepackaged. Nothing is going to waste.”

Helping Hands also offers a program to stock school pantries with food donations and purchases from regional food banks. Every Friday, filled grocery bags and recipes are sent home to feed families over the weekend or during a school break.

Another program created during COVID-19 school disruptions is a community-wide food distribution with volunteers packing food boxes for family pick-up.

Each school can decide what programs best meet the needs and what they can accomplish. Harward said communities have stepped up in ways she never anticipated.

“I wanted to get over the stigma and shame of needing food. If you need food, there’s plenty of it; let us help you,” Harward said.

At Kelly Mill Elementary, Kate, a fourth grader, said it makes her feel good to help others in her community. Her mother volunteers to distribute the food donations to the food pantry Meals by Grace, and sometimes Kate goes with her.

“Whenever we bring food to them, they talk to my mom about how thankful they are that they also get to help our community. The smiles on their faces – I can just tell that they’re so thankful,” Kate said.


HELPING HANDS ENDING HUNGER

Learn how to get involved: www.helpinghandsendinghunger.org/