A volunteer at Cultivate alongside
A volunteer at Cultivate alongside the packaged meals that are sent to students in Elkhart, Ind., and other charity organizations that the nonprofit serves. Image Credit: Washington Post

Washington: Most kids look forward to the weekend. But for some students at Woodland Elementary School in Elkhart, Indiana, it’s not always a happy time.

“A lot of them are food insecure,” said Natalie Bickel, the supervisor of student services at Elkhart Community Schools. “They know they’re not going to have a breakfast and a lunch.”

Our goal is to feed hungry kids, and we want to see improved school performance, whether it’s academic, behaviour, or attendance. This backpack program was close to our hearts.

- Jim Conklin | Madison STEAM Academy

In a county where nearly 13 per cent of children ages 5 to 17 in families live in poverty, according to census data, Bickel said many students rely on free or reduced-price school lunches. But outside of school, their nutritional options could be limited.

A new pilot program being spearheaded by an Indiana non-profit seeks to fill that gap.

A school district in Indiana
A school district in Indiana would allow schools to package up catering leftovers and send them home with students. Image Credit: Washington Post

A food rescue organisation called Cultivate has stepped in to re-purpose leftover cafeteria food into frozen meals that needy students can take home over the weekend.

Bickel worked with Cultivate and social workers at Woodland Elementary to identify 20 students for a pilot program that launched on March 29 and has so far garnered enthusiasm among the students, Bickel said. The students receive backpacks that double as coolers, and are given eight frozen meals to enjoy over the weekend.

100

students at Madison STEAM Academy in Indiana are being given lunch by Cultivate

Cultivate takes leftovers to its facilities, where a small staff and group of volunteers compile them into meals that include a protein, a vegetable, and a starch. They’re packaged in recyclable containers and frozen to maintain freshness, then placed in backpacks that are distributed by school officials to students in the program.

When the program was announced to Woodland Elementary’s cafeteria workers, they stood up and applauded, Bickel said. “It’s something they deal with every day,” she said. “They see the need, they see the hungry kids, and to throw [extra food] away was really difficult for them.”

13%

of children of ages 5 to 13 in Elkhart county in Indiana live in poverty

Cultivate Culinary School and Catering was founded in 2016 by Jim Conklin and a local chef, Randy Ziolkowski, after a previous restaurant enterprise fell through. Dismayed by the amount of food going to waste and wanting to help their community, they founded the non-profit to take food that would otherwise be thrown out by caterers and event spaces and repurpose it into healthy meals for those in need.

Cultivate had already begun piloting a school-lunch program similar to Woodland’s at the nearby Madison STEAM Academy in South Bend, Indiana, co-founder Jim Conklin told The Post. The group provides weekend meals for 100 students at that school, and the food comes from donors such as the University of Notre Dame, a partner, as well as local event spaces and catering services.

“Our goal is to feed hungry kids, and we want to see improved school performance, whether it’s academic, behaviour, or attendance,” Conklin said. “This backpack program was close to our hearts.”

Bickel was part of a local leadership academy run by the Elkhart Chamber of Commerce. Last October, the program’s director of business development, Melissa Ramey, brought in non-profit for the academy participants to work with, and one of them was Cultivate. Excited by the idea of working with them, Bickel put Cultivate in touch with officials at Woodland Elementary. After deciding the best course of action was the backpack lunch program, they worked with the health department and food workers at the school to implement the best approach.

20

students were identified by Cultivate for the pilot programme at a school

Ramey was proud of the program that had resulted from the leadership academy’s collaboration. and hoped that providing regular meals would help children focus on their academics.

“When they go home on the weekends and maybe they get one meal a day, whatever their parents are working hard to provide, I hope this is able to supplement that,” she said. “I hope to hear that these meals create a better outcome for these students.”