Food Scrap Being Wasted at Rhode Island Schools

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — In February, a trash audit at the Pell Elementary School in Newport recovered 238 pounds of food scrap from a single day. The collected food included 45 pounds of unopened yogurt containers, cheese sticks and raisins, and untouched fruit.

The results prompted Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, to file a bill (H7699) that would require school waste haulers and other vendors to comply with state recycling and composting laws. Schools, like businesses and residents, must recycle. But the law is very rarely enforced. Most elementary schools also don’t generate enough food scrap to fall under the state composting law.

Carson wants to expand the composting regulations to include public schools. She doesn't, however, see her bill as a law-enforcement effort but instead as promoting a resource that facilitates learning, saves money, and feeds school children and the poor.

“We’re buying this food. We’re throwing a lot of it away. We’re spending a lot of money on it,” Carson said during an April 3 House hearing.

The bill speaks to the larger issue of unwanted food and Rhode Island’s disparate efforts to address it, particularly in schools. About 20 percent of Rhode Island’s waste stream is food. Waste-reform advocates and compost enthusiasts agree that the first goal is to make less food — a big challenge for today’s on-the-go American diet. Students have less time to eat at school, making leftovers inevitable and few ways to donate to food pantries, compost, or deliver to farms for animal feed. Rhode Island passed a law in 2012 that requires large food producers such as food-makers and grocery stores to take food out of the waste stream. It was amended in 2017 to include colleges and universities.

Carson’s bill tries to emphasize the food system by including a provision that requires school food-service companies to purchase 10 percent of their food from local sources, a requirement already in place in Providence public schools.

Greg Gerritt, founder and organizer of the annual Rhode Island Compost Conference & Trade Show, said mandating composting at schools helps students learn about science and creates nourishment for school gardens. Students, in turn, teach their parents about proper food diversion, he added.

“We need to really get serious. Compost is a climate-change issue, it’s a food-security issue, it’s not a fill-the-landfill issue,” Gerritt said.

Katie Murphy of the Zero Waste Providence ad hoc committee said composting decreases recycling contamination, deters pests, creates a valuable asset for farming, and reduces trucking of food scrap to the landfill.

“It keeps an asset in Rhode Island. The productivity is going to help Rhode Island,” she said.

Even if the bill stalls this year, other efforts are advancing. Carson heads a House food recovery study commission that intends to issue a report on recovery incentives by the end of June.

Newport and other municipalities are working with their school districts to come up with waste and food recovery plans for the 2018-19 school year.

Diane Calvin, a former municipal and school recycling coordinator in Massachusetts, started FoodScape, a central resource for municipal and school composting in Rhode Island. In just a few months, Calvin is making progress with the state Department of Health, the Rhode Island Food Policy Council, the Department of Education and food-service companies to establish universal school rules for food sharing and food donation.

“We give students an opportunity to make a difference,” Calvin said.

Calvin will report her progress at the Compost Conference on May 31.

Kids and sugary drinks
House (H7868) and Senate (S2739) bills seek to ban soda and other high-sugar drinks in kids meals served at restaurants. McDonald’s made the switch on its own to milk, water or fruit juice for its Happy Meals, but 74 percent of fast-food restaurants still offer a high-sugar drink as the default beverage for kids meals.

The American Heart Association says that children age 2 and older should have no more than one 8-ounce sugary drink per week, but many children are consuming 10 times that amount. Sugary drinks are the leading source of sugar in the American diet. The drinks are linked to diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Rhode Island spends $550 million annually in treating obesity.