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DMS Food Waste Warriors

Delran Middle School students have seamlessly integrated sustainable practices into their daily routines, showcasing the ease with which they have adopted the principles of environmental responsibility.

On a recent visit to Delran Middle School, sixth-grade students were effortlessly sorting their mealtime waste into compost bins, milk carton recycling bins, and plastic recycling bins, showcasing their commitment to reducing food waste.  One of three schools in New Jersey chosen to pilot a school food waste program, the Food Waste Warriors at DMS not only educates students on sustainability practices but gives back to the community as well.

Published in the “Sustainable Jersey for Schools ToolKit for PreK-12 Schools: Reduce, Recover & Recycle Food Waste,” DMS was able to reduce their food waste by nearly 99% over the course of one year with the use of composting. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection provided a $25,000 grant to support sustainability and food waste reduction programs, with which a composting system was purchased for the school to reduce organic waste. Each day, food preparation materials and any organic waste leftover from school meals, such as breakfasts and lunches, are sorted into different categories to reduce our footprint. Students created signage to direct their peers on how to dispose of each item leftover on their trays to make an impact on the environment.

Bins with signage are located in multiple locations within the Cafeteria. The receptacles were custom-made with rotors to hold buckets that are easily detachable to be taken outside to the composter. For organizations that pay for waste removal by the poundage, a model like this could be a real cost-saver.

In addition to the composter, receptacles, and other supplies, a new food disposal unit was also installed within the kitchen. During the visit, employees put the food prep organic waste within each of the appropriate bins, showing a community effort and dedication to the program. Support Services, such as Nutriserve employees and custodial staff, were all trained on the program as well with protocols designed by Erica DeMichele. Principal Mr. MacHale also publishes related information to families regularly in the school’s newsletter.

Speaking with teacher advisors Katie Conroy and Rick Cameron, their dedication to environmental science and sustainability was apparent. Each year, the DMS science teachers train students with learning materials on Canvas. They are always brainstorming ways to improve the program with ongoing projects to both make a difference in the community as well as to reduce our environmental footprint. While they noted that sometimes students need gentle reminders about recycling, the students were observed to be very independent and good at sorting as part of their lunchtime cleanup routine. Mrs. Conroy noted that over time she has seen less plastic waste like forks going into the food and compost buckets.  Both teachers discussed how important programs like this are in encouraging students to be environmentally conscious as well as facilitating problem-solving. For example, students noted they were not recycling juice containers initially as the juice was still partially frozen and difficult to quickly remove. This resulted in communication with the food preparation staff and the juice defrosting process beginning earlier in the day.

Overall, the difference the program has made is substantial. In Dr. Sara Elnakib’s, et. al, final report, students reduced food waste by nearly 99% over the course of a year. Visuals from their report show the difference across six total visits to the site and the overall impact after composting:

Taking the program further, STEM Co-Coordinator and Science Supervisor Erica DeMichele also wrote a horticulture curriculum this past summer, through which students can experiment and use the compost within the school gardens. Working with high school staff, one of the proposed projects to bring the initiative further into the community is to have high school students market and package the compost to sell at the STEM Fair; this idea has also been supported within the community, who have been motivated to help the environment and the importance of sustainability. The annual Delran STEM Fair will be held on Monday, May 20, 2024; event details will be posted on the Events tab for those interested in attending.

Food Waste Warriors advisors Mr. Cameron and Mrs. Conroy both noted gratitude to the Delran Middle School PTA for the incentives they offer the student volunteers. The group would love to expand membership and meet during BEAR period. Food Waste Warriors are also provided with lunch line priority as student volunteers.

Beyond waste reduction, the initiative has served as an educational platform, instilling a sense of environmental stewardship among students, and empowering them to make informed choices. Thank you to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection for the grant opportunity, to Sustainable Jersey for Schools for the detailed toolkit, to Rutgers Cooperative Extension in the Department of Family and Community Health Sciences researchers (Dr. Sara Elnakib, Dr. Amy Rowe, and Sabrina Subhit), and for the ongoing support of the Delran staff, students, and community. Together we are making a difference!

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