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Kelly Mill Elementary School figured out how to cut food waste by 400 pounds a week and help hungry families
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Rows of extra juice boxes sit in a freezer at Kelly Mill Elementary School on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. The food items were donated by students as part of the school's participation in the Helping Hands Ending Hunger program. - photo by Brian Paglia

Kelly Mill Elementary School knew it had a problem with food waste. Every day, during breakfast and lunch, its more than 1,200 students were tossing unused items like fruit, milk, juice and yogurt into the trash.

“A lot of food was being wasted,” said Madison Thompson, a third-grader.

“Yeah,” said fourth-grader Madison Spier, “people were just throwing food away.”

But a group of parents and student helpers have turned the tables this school year. Kelly Mill became a chapter of Helping Hands EndingHunger, a nonprofit based in North Georgia, and implemented a program to collect those unused food items and put them to good use.

Now, instead of that food headed to the landfill, students can put their extra food in baskets stationed in the cafeteria or in school hallways. A group of third- to fifth-grade students sorts the food, counts it, cleans it, and stores it in a commercial freezer.

The food is then distributed, first to students in need at Kelly Mill and another area elementary school, then to The Place of Forsyth County and Meals by Grace, two local nonprofit organizations that provide food assistance.

The impact has been huge: according to Michael Burbrink, a counselor at Kelly Mill, the small team of parents and students collect an average of 1,400 food items a week, or about 400 pounds of food that would have otherwise been trashed.

They also collect the thin cardboard lunch trays used in the school cafeteria, as long as they’re not too greasy. That can add up, too. On a recent Tuesday, fourth-grader Joshua Morgan had already recorded the amount they had collected from breakfast: “16 pounds,” he said.

“Even for us, I think it was pretty eye-opening to see just how much we collect in a week,” Burbrink said.

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Baskets are stationed in the cafeteria at Kelly Mill Elementary School on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, to collect food items as part of the school's participation in the Helping Hands Ending Hunger program. - photo by Brian Paglia

The program also provides students with some real-world experience. They had to apply to be a helper, answering questions like, “Why do you want to participate” or “Why do you think this is good for you?”

“You’re helping kids who need it and families that don’t have enough food,” said fourth-grader Constance Hart. “Some of our population don’t have that much.”

Morgan added, “I just want to help people – help the homeless, people that don’t have food.”

The students work one day per week, and they get assigned one of three jobs: a collector, who mans the collection baskets in the hallways during breakfast time; a runner, who collects the food from the baskets; and a sorter.

“We have a good group of kids,” said Terri Hadley, another counselor at Kelly Mill.

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Students tally food items donated during breakfast at Kelly Mill Elementary School on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, as part of the Helping Hands Ending Hunger program. - photo by Brian Paglia

Hadley helps to distribute the donations, along with a group of parents as well as a recently-retired teacher from Kelly Mill.

Hadley said the school would like to expand the program to become a full food pantry with dry items. They’d also like to see it implemented in other schools around the district. They’ve already gotten Coal Mountain Elementary School on board, Hadley said.

“The hard thing to wrap our head around is how much was being wasted just at our school and to know that’s happening at every single school in the district, state-wide, throughout the country,” Burbrink said.

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Constance Hart (from left), Madison Spier, Joshua Morgan, Sadie Snyder and Madison Thompson and other students at Kelly Mill Elementary School take part in Helping Hands Ending Hunger, a program that repurposes unopened food to help hungry families. - photo by Brian Paglia