Fresno Unified schools used to throw away millions of pounds of leftover food every year that students didn’t eat. Now, much of that surplus is going to food pantries, homeless shelters, and other sites that feed the hungry across Fresno.

The shift has been made through the efforts of Fresno Metro Ministry. Every school day, vans from the local non-profit visit 25 Fresno Unified schools to collect fresh and healthy items that are then re-distributed to those facing food insecurity. The surplus includes pre-packaged fruit, vegetables, microwavable lunches, and healthy snacks.

In its first year of operation, Food to Share has recovered over 500,000 pounds of food from Fresno Unified schools, said Metro Ministry deputy director Chanel Ruiz-Mendez. She said 10,000 people a year directly benefit from Food to Share’s partnership with over 40 local food distribution organizations.

“Our ultimate goal is to make this (program) a model for the Valley.” — Chanel Ruiz-Mendez, deputy director for Fresno Metro Ministry

The effort has been so successful that Metro Ministry is looking to expand its Food to Share collection program to 13 additional Fresno Unified campuses by next fall.

The program also retrieves surplus food from restaurants, farmers markets, and hospitals among other locations.

Putting Surplus to Good Use

Fresno Unified is required by law to provide a certain amount of fruits and vegetables for students. But students often don’t choose these items when they are making their meal and snack selections, said Jose Alvarado, food services director for the district. As a result, schools are left with a large number of extra items.

He said a variety of factors affect the choices students make.

“As seen at many of our middle schools and high schools, many students prefer to socialize during lunch or hit the basketball courts rather than eat,” Alvarado said. “It’s those unopened food items that we are recovering the most and donating through programs like Food to Share.”

Students also play another role. At most campuses, they help collect and sort the unused food for pickup.

Students Learning Valuable Lessons

At Susan B. Anthony Elementary School, a group called the Aspire Girls devotes a portion of their lunchtime to separate hot food items from cold ones and organize them into large green crates.

“When my teacher asked us if we wanted to volunteer for the Food to Share program, I was just like, yes because I’ve seen someone do that before and I want to help again. It makes me feel good that I am helping people who don’t have food.” — Amris Her, a sixth grader at Anthony Elementary School 

Sixth-grader Cecilia Gonzalez hopes her participation will inspire other students.

“I wanted to participate because I want to be a role model to other kids,” Gonzalez said. “If they see me doing the right thing, maybe they will too.”

Amris Her, also a sixth grader, said she developed a passion for helping others after her parents took her to the Poverello House to serve food to the homeless.

“When my teacher asked us if we wanted to volunteer for the Food to Share program, I was just like, yes because I’ve seen someone do that before and I want to help again,” Her said. “It makes me feel good that I am helping people who don’t have food.”

The school is also creating a group called Young Men of Character to encourage male students to participate.

Popular Item: Ready-To-Eat Snacks

Thanks to these efforts, officials at the Poverello House say they are able to feed over 100 people every week just from the program’s food deliveries.

“Food to Share fulfills a niche that other companies don’t fill, and that’s providing ready-to-eat nutritional snacks,” said Cory Amoroso, the homeless shelter’s volunteer coordinator. “That’s huge because although we provide three free meals a day, not all of our clients are around during meal time. But they are (here) during snack time so we like to provide them with that throughout the day.”

“I think what they are doing is innovative and I would like to see the program expand.” — Jessica Medina, coordinator of the Food Security project at Fresno State

Ready-to-eat snacks are also popular among busy college students, said Jessica Medina, coordinator of the Food Security project at Fresno State.

“A lot of times, the things students get (from the Student Cupboard) aren’t fully cooked so they have to go home and make a meal,” Medina said. “The Food to Share program’s ready-to-eat meals give students the ability to have something in between classes.”

Expanding Its Reach

Medina said many other CSU campuses and school districts should work to develop similar Food to Share partnerships.

“I have talked to other CSU campuses that would love to have something like this,” Medina said. “I think what they (Fresno Metro Ministry) are doing is innovative and I would like to see the program expand.”

That’s exactly what Ruiz-Mendez plans on doing. She said Metro Ministry is in the process of purchasing a third cargo van to support the program.

“Once we hit 94 schools in Fresno Unified, we are estimating that we will approach 2 million pounds of food recovered and distributed annually,” Ruiz-Mendez said. “We want to hit all of the local (school) districts in Fresno, such as Clovis (Unified) and Central (Unified). Our ultimate goal is to make this (program) a model for the Valley.”

Helping The Environment

In addition to reducing hunger, Food to Share is helping the environment, Ruiz-Mendez said.

Every pound of food recovered and consumed saves 2.2 pounds of greenhouse gas emitted to the atmosphere, she said.

“Food in landfills lets off methane gas, which is worse than what’s coming out of the tailpipe of cars, which adds to poor air quality,” Ruiz-Mendez said. “So getting the food consumed can make a huge difference.”

Watch: Fresno Unified’s Food Share Program

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