John Williamson doesn't quite cut the figure that brings the word "activist" to mind. Phys ed teacher? Sure. That's his training, a Ball State degree that led to a stint in elementary education. A quick study with a quicker smile, Williamson looks like The Guy in the Next Cubicle. Or Jim Gaffigan's Second Cousin, maybe.
Nonetheless, through Williamson's efforts, Indiana leads the nation when it comes to reducing school food waste — and sending that nutrition to the needy. The concept's simple: untouched, unopened and unpeeled food that school kids don't eat goes into a bin. Then, that bin is refrigerated and then picked up by what's called a "caring agency" — often a food pantry or a shelter or some other charitable organization. It's such a simple act. So simple that the minimal effort involved might make the gesture seem almost insignificant.
That is, until you consider the following:
Schools in the United States trash one billion food items a year.
Americans waste 40 percent of the food we're making.
A frightening portion of that food (and its attendant packaging) is trucked into landfills and incinerators, leaving a methane-and-smoke footprint that's incredibly harmful.
And all of that waste could be feeding our neighbors: In Indiana, one in six people are hungry right now.
Williamson doesn't wear his activism like a badge — until, that is, he starts talking about food waste, landfills, public school kids and people with food insecurity. Williamson has found a way to feed his passion and feed the needy, and, in turn, feed less to Indiana's landfills.
Williamson and Jennifer Carmack Brilliant, a former broadcast news reporter who's now a program director for K-12 FR (and who covered John's work on two different TV outlets in town before taking the position), meet me to talk about the program. The two are overflowing with info, but Williamson has to temper his zeal with caution — he wants every school in the state (heck, in the nation) to see the food rescue movement as critically important. Tailoring that message without looking too critical can be tricky.
The concept that became K-12 Food Rescue started with a conversation Williamson had with his wife in 2007: "My wife read to me an article about freegans ... [people] who get food out of trashcans, but they're not homeless. I'm like, "Are you kidding me? Why would that food not be going to families and children in need rather than people who are just trying to make a political statement to bring attention to the issue?"
Williamson, as anyone who knows the man quickly learns, doesn't exactly have the apathy gene.
From Little Caesars to the lunchroom
Carmack explains: "[Initially, John] was very concerned about how much waste we as Americans participate in. And he wanted to do something about it. He reached out to Panera, Little Caesars, and a couple of other restaurants to find out what they do with their leftovers. When they expressed interest in donating some of their leftovers, he coordinated an effort with his friends for volunteers to pick up the food to take it to places like Third Phase, which is a battered women's shelter in Noblesville."
"I went down to Whole Foods, and Walmart and Panera and they all said they had it completely under control — 'We give to this organization and that organization,'" Williamson recalls. "But Panera said, 'No, we have 11 Paneras around the city and a lot of them are throwing [the day's leftovers] out.' So my wife and I started picking up food one day a week at one Panera in Noblesville, then two, then four."
"Then we sent emails to our friends and our friends were like 'Yes, we'd love to help,' and then we started picking up at Einstein's and Paradise."
Next, Williamson and company managed to hook the food-waste equivalent of a great white whale: Little Caesars Pizza.
As it turns out, the Little Caesars model — having pies ready-made to go — can make for quite a bit of daily waste. Williamson shares the stats via email: "We've connected 154 Little Caesars franchises with caring agencies to pick pizzas and prevent them from going into landfills. [In 2015] that's 21 stores with 100,000 pizzas donated to caring agencies instead of landfills. If you consider 2 pieces of pizza a meal, that's over 400,000 meals from those 21 stores alone."
Since Williamson had spent nine years as an elementary ed teacher in Carmel, he figured there was one more source that had to be chucking vast amounts of ready edibles: public school cafeterias.
Brilliant says, "Two years ago, the focus shifted from restaurants to K-12 schools. What we're seeing in Indiana alone is approximately 22 million pieces of unused, unopened, unwanted food going into landfills each year. These are items that kids, for a myriad of reasons, decide they don't want to eat. So instead of throwing this perfectly good and nutritious food away, we partner the K-12 schools with a caring agency. They coordinate a pickup schedule and the school puts out a bin near the trays and trash for the unopened, unwanted, unpeeled food to go into. We're talking about items like milk, yogurt cups, unpeeled fruit, prepackaged fruits and vegetables, peanut butter crackers. The bin is then taken into the fridge until the caring agency comes for pickup. At that point, the food is then redistributed to people in need."
Benefit one: Less food rotting away at the dump.
Benefit two: Hungry people eat.
"This saves all of that food from going into landfills, which produces methane gas — 21 times more potent than CO2." (Brilliant's referring to the methane's effect on climate change — and her figures are actually a bit conservative.) "The other element of food rescue that was very appealing to me is the student focus of the organization. Our generation created this mess with food waste — we aren't going to be the ones to fix it.
"The kids will be the ones to fix it."
Apples, apathy and the law
So here's the challenge: "The first thing to do is teach the kids the value of food. You can't tell a kid, "Look at this apple, it's so nutritious!'" says Brilliant. "But if you don't eat it, you don't want it, go ahead and throw it in the trash. Instead, you have to teach the child that it's okay to not eat food that you don't want to eat."
And when the time comes to clear the tray, that food, those uneaten, untouched leftovers can go to someone who needs them.
"We don't have third world country hunger here but we do have food insecurity," says Brilliant. By that, she means that although we — as a state and a nation — produce plenty to feed everyone, but making sure that the healthy eats make it to the hungry bellies is the challenge.
"It's not a food supply issue in this country. It's a food distribution issue. We have the food. We are throwing it away at an alarming rate. We are throwing so much food away that in this country, we could fill Lucas Oil Stadium up to the brim every single day, every day of the year with good food that we throw away.
"So, by engaging the kids, you are doing two things. You are teaching them the value of food, which will then change the course of food waste for the next generation. But you're also empowering these kids, even at a young age, to show them that they can change the world. You can help feed someone that is hungry, you can save our environment, and you can literally change the world," says Brilliant.
Currently, roughly 10 percent of Indiana schools are involved in food rescue, 270 out of over 2,000 statewide. "It seems like a no-brainer that all of these schools should participate but there are plenty of barriers," says Brilliant. She continues: "One of the biggest barriers we face is a lot of the schools don't think this is legal. And there was a time that this wasn't [perceived as] legal. But in 2011, the National School Lunch Act was amended [to clarify] that schools have the same protections as restaurants under the Good Samaritan Laws."
You read that correctly. It wasn't until 2011 that the law regarding cafeteria food rescue was clarified and schools were allowed to give their leftovers to the needy. The Good Samaritan Food Act, a product of the Clinton administration, protected donors from liability — simply put, excepting cases of gross negligence, recipients of donated food couldn't sue the donor if the food harmed the recipient. The law further standardized "liability exposure,"which differed by state, and set the parameters for that aforementioned "gross negligence."
Brilliant wants to clarify: The original law had only been directed at restaurants. Schools hadn't been mentioned per se, so the assumption was made that the lunchroom couldn't participate. "It was just one of those things that was overlooked and no one addressed. Giving the schools those protections, that opens the door to encourage schools to participate. It goes a step further because not only is it perfectly legal but the USDA and EPA encourage schools to participate. "
Now some really good news for Indiana's battered rep, both in education and beyond: As mentioned earlier, the Hoosier State is at the forefront of school-food-donation program.
"Indiana is in a very unique situation because we are one of two states —it's us and California — that have state guidelines for schools to donate. And the crazy thing about this is, no one knows about this. Legislators don't know that this exists," says a perplexed Brilliant.
Williamson's lobbying efforts with the Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana State Department of Health put the Hoosier state at the forefront of such initiatives. According to Williamson, he's now advising other states on crafting guidelines, including progressive strongholds such as Vermont.
Educating the educators
As the food rescue evangelists try to take their message to more Indiana counties and even other states, they also encounter a few other obstacles; namely, fear and overwork.
The fear's understandable: From test scores to teacher burnout, public school educators are wary of anything that might be perceived as pushing the limits of legality.
That's why supporting documents from the Feds are front and center on the Food Rescue website: "It explains that it's not only legal, its encouraged" — by the EPA and other federal agencies.
"John and I face the challenge everyday of removing the stumbling [blocks] that stop schools from participating, from thinking that this is illegal to, 'We don't have the room or the staff,' " says Brilliant. "There are already so many mandates on schools that there's the mentality that they couldn't possibly take on one more thing. But when you talk to a school that's participating, they'll tell you it's not that big of a deal."
It's even less of a big deal when the kids take ownership. The S.L.E.I. program (pronounced "sleigh"), standing for Student Lead Entrepreneur Initiative, was the brainchild of a student at the University of Maryland who'd become familiar with Williamson's group via the K-12 Food Rescue website. Ben Simon — who was 20 years old when he began his mission — started finding ways to move untouched cafeteria leftovers into the pantries of caring agencies. Simon's initiatives spread to other campuses across the nation.
Here in Indiana, the kids that were participating initially found that an average of 45 items a day stayed out of Indiana landfills and made it into local food pantries. The idea began to spread, aided by student-produced video shorts that explained the concept and dramatically outlined the stats.
"Those kids would count the food and provide us with statistics and make videos to inspire others. ... We have robotics teams, Key Clubs, special needs kids, which opens up another door of opportunity for these kids to really feel like they can change the world.
The S.L.E.I. program is written for high school kids but I firmly believe that kindergarteners can do this program. We're talking about counting food and having kids tell us how many milks they are collecting."
And the average of recovered foodstuffs is climbing, says Brilliant: "What we're seeing from most schools is about 60 items a day."
As long as a school makes the simple commitment to simply provide a bin.
"I just [heard] from a lady in Kentucky who was a food service director," says Williamson in an email. "She said there were 100,010 students in 150 schools in Kentucky. Lots of back and forth but in the end they decided they were just too busy. It was just an incredibly sad day, because we know how much food was involved in that decision.
Williamson's voice rises a little.
"I get edgy because there is so much at stake. I sometimes feel like I have failed in those instances ... knowing all the children and families who might have benefited.
Hamilton County is often perceived as exclusively well-to-do, a bedroom community for Indy's mid-and-upper-level executives. From the booming town of Fishers to the high-end Carmel art galleries, it's tough to imagine that anyone in the county might be going to bed hungry.
The food pantry at the White River Christian Church paints a different picture.
On Thursday afternoons, the pantry's open for business — and business is booming. Pastor Fred Knoll is greeting those the church is serving. There's a massive waiting room to keep the floor of the pantry organized. When a family's name is called, a volunteer walks the "shopper" through the pantry, offering one-on-one guidance.
Shoppers are issued bags, the number dependent on the size of the family. The amount that a family can take, though, isn't necessarily limited to the bag; some items — bread, for example — are plentiful enough that a few loaves aren't required to be placed in the sack.
Knoll, Bible in hand, is happy to offer his testimony, but listening isn't required. Although the sprawling WRCC campus is clearly an evangelical place of worship and outreach, this food pantry is a no-questions-asked, no-worship-required operation.
And although this pantry's run by Debbie Diaz, Pastor Knoll, WRCC and a full complement of volunteers, Willliamson and his organization's fingerprints cover the placet: Stacks of Little Caesars' pizza boxes grace one table, crates full of single-serve school milk cartons cover another. All of the Noblesville schools donate, along with four HSE elementary schools. But the need vastly outweighs just items that can be rescued. "[Midwest] Food Bank has bumped up [donations] to twice a month now — we have a huge partnership with Meijer ... which is our greatest financial donor."
A volunteer, Walter Hazelwood, stands in front of a cooler, handing out milk. Those industrial size fridges have been donated by places like Starbucks and City Barbecue.
"We get about 240 to 250 families every Thursday," says Knoll. "In terms of retail value, per family that goes out the door ... it averages about 75 dollars per family."
"What makes WRCC unique as far as food rescue is that there are teachers in the community that are part of the congregation are the ones that are bringing the food and making the deliveries," says Williamson.
There's one difference between what comes from Gleaners and what comes from Noblesville Schools, though, and Williamson again stresses that distinction: It's K-12 Food Rescue, not "donation."
"The environmental issue is actually a gift," Williamson explains. "It's a gift to get the food donated. Because the food service directors understand and are very concerned that you don't want to give an incentive to children to donate — 'cause it does feel good to give. So you don't want a kid grabbing an apple just to put it in the bin."
"But when they do grab that apple and they're chatting with the kid next to them instead of eating that apple, we want someone to be able to eat that apple instead of it rotting in a landfill," says Brilliant.
And Williamson adds, "We say that every kid deserves the right to make a better choice than feeding a landfill and ignoring hungry children and families."
But it's the broader community that's going to make K-12 Food Rescue's efforts ubiquitous — and the idea that kids are schooling the adults about food waste is marketing gold. Williamson understands the impact of social media: "I go to the local TV station's Facebook feeds. When they post a story, it gets like 15 to 75 shares. A piece about us that aired on WRTV the other day got shared 817 times.
"People are interested in this school food waste much more than the regular food waste that I've been talking about for years.
"It's hitting a nerve."
MORE INFO: LUNCH, KIDS, FOOD DESERTS AND MICHELLE OBAMA
Beyond the idea that some food not consumed in school can help the needy, John Williamson and Jennifer Carmack Brilliant of K-12 Food Rescue are painfully aware that the notion of waste reduction on the front has become a political football. (Google "Michelle Obama school food" and watch the horror show.) Brilliant and Williamson have a counter for that rhetoric.
Jennifer Carmack Brilliant: "With the changing landscape of the school lunch, I always like to tell this story: I used to be a volunteer counselor at children's burn camp. Many of these kids that were burn survivors, well, their lives were tough long before their burn injuries ever happened. One day for snack, we had apples. A 7-year-old girl was just staring at the basket. I said "Do you not like apples?" And she said "We can't eat those. Those aren't real." ." It took me 40 minutes to explain to her to explain to her that this was an apple, and you take an apple to make applesauce and apple juice. But first, it's an apple. It's not made of plastic; it's not made of wax. It's a real fruit that you can actually bite into and enjoy. She had never even eaten a fresh apple in her life. And she was 7 years old. And if you think that's not a real case, you need to visit some of the more challenged neighborhoods in Indianapolis and talk to kids. They just don't have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. So, if you place this food on a plate in a cafeteria and they have no reference point to it in their lives, they're not going to eat it. They're just not. . Especially when you consider that oftentimes most of their food is purchased at a convenience store. It will take time and education to change that."
John Williamson: "I told my wife yesterday, "I can go to McDonald's and get a meal for $3. We can't make a meal for our family of 4 with that much. And it's typically not good for you. And you're going to pay for that on the healthcare side of things. We aren't choosing sides of the political debate, we are just pointing out that there are two sides."
Jennifer Carmack Brilliant: "First and foremost, we want the kids to eat the food they have at lunch. But I invite you to go to the cafeteria and spend time with the kids. It's a multi-faceted issue as to why kids don't eat their lunch. And there are studies that show, on the USDA's website, that if you schedule lunch directly after recess, the kids consume 30 percent more of their lunch. If you stretch lunch from 20 minutes, which is what it is across the board thanks to standardized testing, to to 30 minutes, waste is reduced by one-third. I have a 5-year-old, a Kindergartner in IPS.. I have a 5-year-old, a kindergartner at Butler Lab. And the kid comes home with a full lunchbox almost every single day. My child doesn't miss a meal. This kid, I think he has a hollow leg. But at lunch, he doesn't eat. And he says he's too busy talking. It's his time to be social. The other issue is, his lunch period is at 10:45 in the morning. But when I pick him up in the car, he's cramming everything down that's in his lunchbox."
MORE INFO: LINKS AND THE LIKE
To see the schools that are already involved in the program • k12foodrescue.com/active-schools
John Williamson can be contacted at
• firstname.lastname@example.org • (317) 694-4006
The EPA has a wealth of info on food waste and recovery here: • epa.gov/sustainable-management-food
Schools interested in the USDA's "Food Waste Challenge"
can find details here:
(NOTE: Midwest Food Bank was mis-identified as Gleaner's in an earlier version of this story.)