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Newark Academy students prepare unused food at the school's cafeteria to donate to Table to Table.
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Newark Academy Students Rescue Food One Tray at a Time

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Every Friday after school, a group of middle school students at Newark Academy in Livingston wash their hands, put on gloves, tie their hair back, and gather, package, and label an assortment of unused food from their school cafeteria. This surplus is donated to Table to Table, a food rescue program that delivers fresh foods to organizations that serves the hungry in Essex and three other northern New Jersey counties.

This mission was first started in April of 2023 by five students who were the in sixth grade – Ashlyn Wolfe, Rhea Vasovada, Nilya Damodaran, Ava Lavian, and Julie Neu. It began with a simple observation of wasted food in trash bins, a stark contrast to the hunger plaguing many communities.

“We saw excess food in the cafeteria garbage containers, and we thought this could be eaten by other people,” said Ashlyn. “We thought of donating the food.”

But first, they had to find an organization to partner with. They looked to find organizations that would take the food and give it to people in need, and found Table to Table.

They also had to pitch their plan to the school’s food service provider, Sage. “We made a presentation to them about what we wanted and how we would work with them and Table to Table to make it happen,” explained Rhea. Ever since, Sage has set aside surplus meals and foods each week for the students to pack and donate.

The founders’ passion soon spread to their peers. For sixth-grader Hannah Lazer, it’s about empathy and equity.

“It’s important that we donate to people who are less fortunate than a lot of us here,” she said.

Ashleen Callahan, also in sixth grade, recognized the project’s power to unite.

“It brings the community closer together. We get a chance to give back for everything we have,” she said.

The students are also committed to environmental stewardship by rescuing food destined for landfills.

They seamlessly and efficiently pack the leftover foods, which this week included asparagus, macaroni salad, grilled cheese, spinach and tofu, breads and bagels, and meat sauce; and store them all in tall racks before rolling the racks outside to a delivery vehicle.

“We’re making a dent raising the level of consciousness, providing these kids leadership opportunity, and they get it, they know what they have to do,” said advisor Debra Tavares. “They’re hard workers. And they feel good about what they’re doing, they understand the significance.”

During a recent Friday event, Table to Table’s director, Heather Thompson, told the Newark Academy students how inspiring she found them.

“The food you are packing today is going to a food pantry in Orange, not so far away, and they do a food distribution that reaches more than 1,500 people,” Thompson said. A lot of times when families go to food pantries, they get canned food, cereal, pasta, beans, Thompson added.

“Those things are important, but they don’t get a lot of fresh food, and deliciously made food, like this. You guys are doing a lot of good,” she said. “(If) we could do this in every school, just think how much food we could provide.”

The volunteers suggested inviting neighboring school s to see the food donation program, and said they would like to help them start similar programs at their schools.

Tavares, along with Newark Academy sustainability teacher Rachael Reeves and the students, are already looking into next steps. To begin, the students will present the program data a middle school environmental club meeting.

How many people did the food they collected that one Friday feed? “With 19 trays and two huge bags of greens, it will probably provide fresh, healthy meals for more than 100 to 150 people,” said Thompson.

Not bad for leftovers.

Credit: https://publisher.etype.services/West-Essex-Tribune

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