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Shared Stories Stories of Food Sustainability

Empowering K-12 Students Through Education

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Curator’s Note: As told by Ann Pendleton, VP Marketing & Business Strategy at Chartwells K-12, to the Food for Thought editorial staff, and used with permission.

The responsibility of serving healthy and delicious food to children across the country is a big one! And ensuring they receive what might be the only balanced, nutritious meal for the day, you realize just how big, and how humbling, your role can be. But it’s not just about food; education and empowerment is also just as important, especially when it comes to food recovery.

At Chartwell’s K-12, we have actively supported the local teams with the K-12 Food Recovery pilot program, whereby K-12 students are educated about, and participate in, initiatives to repurpose their unwanted food. Having trialled the program at two schools in Indiana, we have seen great success in the past year and are looking to continue that momentum in the new school year, as well as hopefully expanding to a broader base. 

When we first embarked on the pilot, there were certainly some issues, particularly surrounding the food service rules and regulations stipulated by the USDA. When serving school lunches, it’s necessary to serve a balanced meal, but unfortunately, we still saw some waste. As a result, we looked for a more sustainable solution while also being educational. Now, thanks to our teams’ efforts, with the food recovery program, students have the opportunity to donate the unwanted food – such as string cheese, unopened milk, or fresh, unpeeled oranges – by placing them in designated food recovery bins.

The program has been so successful because we have really engaged school communities.  We educate the students on the importance of a having a balanced meal, as well as the consequences of food wastage, such as the environmental impact and the lost opportunity of helping the needy. We’ve introduced characters into the elementary school program, and this has been a great method of educating the younger students. These days, students have an element of activism in them – they like to own their social responsibility – and by considering the students as co-creators, we are leveraging their education, their engagement and the program’s positive impact.

Our local teams have really developed this program and one of my favorite photos taken shows one of our lead chefs walking elementary students through the food recovery process – she’s showing them which foods can be placed in the food recovery bins, and exactly which bin each item of food should go into it. To me, it’s the perfect snapshot of these young children learning a skill that they will use for the rest of their lives. Just like I remember telling my grandfather to buckle his seatbelt when I was child after I had been educated on the dangers of driving without one, these students will be the generation who are educated about nutrition, sustainability and food recovery, and will advocate and participate in the process for years to come.

So far, while the program has been a big balancing act, I am proud to say that it has led to a successful food recovery rate without inducing higher production. Our teams have made a positive impact to the food pantries and food banks within the vicinity of the pilot locations, and both of the pilot schools have a vested interest in keeping the programs going. We continue to learn and look for opportunities to expand, because at the end of the day, nothing beats the smile you create when you provide a student with a nutritious meal, or when you educate them on how they can do the same for others.


Ann Pendleton, VP Marketing & Business Strategy at Chartwells K-12


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