worker with trays of food Cultivate rescues food from many local organizations around the area. (Photo: Cultivate)

A new pilot program at an Indiana elementary school is taking food that normally would've gone to waste and turning it into meals for students in need.

On March 29, 20 students at Woodland Elementary School in Elkhart took home insulated backpacks filled with frozen meals to feed them through the weekend.

Woodland Elementary was selected for the pilot program because of the high number of students who qualify for free and reduced meals, Natalie Bickel, the supervisor of student services for Elkhart Community Schools, tells MNN.

"Our hardworking building administrators and social workers are constantly engaging with families and aware of the challenges some families face," she says. "The school reached out to families who may be in food-insecure situations and asked if they would be interested."

Bickel is a member of the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce Leadership Academy, a leadership training program that puts a focus on community issues and awareness. The academy is where the idea first surfaced.

While completing service projects, the participants learned about Cultivate, a nonprofit based in South Bend. Cultivate's partnerships include the University of Notre Dame, Nelson’s Chicken and local restaurants, caterers and grocery stores. These places often have perfectly good food that isn't going to be eaten at the end of the day. Cultivate collects, repackages and delivers it to people who can use it.

Members of the Leadership Academy met with Elkhart Community Schools, then partnered with Cultivate.

"Elkhart Community Schools maintains a high level of efficiency in their food services operations and continuously adjusts processes as needed to maintain efficiency, but ultimately, in an organization that serves over 12,000 students, there is a small amount of food that goes unused," Bickel points out. "In learning this, Cultivate saw an opportunity to rescue the food, process it through their facility, and create complete frozen meals to give back to the students at Woodland Elementary to serve their nutritional needs over the weekend."

'A way to help our students outside of the building'

insulated backpack with frozen meals Students are given an insulated backpack with eight frozen meals. (Photo: Cultivate)

For this project, Cultivate collects food from several Elkhart Schools kitchens that was prepared, but never served. Before now, that food was thrown away. Each pre-packaged meal that is sent home with students has a protein, vegetable and starch.

When cafeteria workers heard about the new plan, they stood and applauded, Bickel said.

"The ECS food service staff grows to know and love their students, so they become aware of their home lives and recognize some food insecurities. In this light, the ECS food services staff was thrilled to learn about a way to help our students outside of the school building."

Bickel says she hopes the program will be successful and continue to grow as more sources of unused food become available.

And even though it's only been a week since the pilot program began, other schools are paying attention.

"We've had inquiries from other school districts all around the country about how the program was started," Bickel says. "We're hoping to put together something that outlines the procedure and share it with other school districts when they inquire."

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.

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