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From lunch box to food pantry

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The cafeteria at St. Mary School in Alexandria was filled with fourth-graders, long tables scattered with lunchboxes and the sound of excited chatter. As they lunched, students occasionally placed a carton of milk or piece of fruit into a refrigerator labeled with shiny gold and blue letters — Food Bus

In 2012, Kathleen Dietrich, a parishioner of Little Flower Church in Bethesda, Md., was monitoring her own child’s cafeteria and watched as handful after handful of unopened, uneaten, perfectly good food piled up in the trash. That kind of food waste isn’t limited to inside schools, she said. “About 40 percent of what our country produces in food is wasted,” said Dietrich. “Then it gets taken to a landfill and emits methane gas.”

So Dietrich asked the principal if she could bring the unwanted food to a pantry. That idea became Food Bus Inc., which now helps around 50 schools nationwide avoid food waste and feed the hungry. Food Bus buys each school a refrigerator and whatever else they need to collect the food. They also help implement the program in a way that works for the school. Every week, volunteers bring the donated food to a partner food pantry, or in some schools, the food goes directly to the school’s needy families.

At first, Dietrich finds that many school officials are worried about liability, but they come to embrace the program as they learn what can and cannot be donated, and see the success of other schools. “Once people figure out that it can be done, that it’s legal, that it’s safe and that there’s a need, they rarely turn their back on it,” said Dietrich.

Parent Ingrid Allen initiated the program at St. Mary after hearing about it from friends in Arlington. Since they’ve partnered with Food Bus in September, St. Mary School has donated more than 400 pounds of leftover food to the Christ House food pantry in Alexandria. “We’re excited to be the first Catholic school in Northern Virginia to be involved with the Food Bus program,” she said.

La Sallette Sister Aniliza Juan, volunteer coordinator, at Christ House, appreciates that the program teaches children about the needs of the poor and encourages them to share with others. Much of the food in their large Christ House pantry is boxed or canned, and is distributed two days a week. Food donated through Food Bus is typically healthful, perishable items such as milk. In many instances, Dietrich has seen Food Bus’s partnership with food pantries totally change what kinds of food they are able to offer their clients regularly, she said. 

Principal Janet Cantwell feels the parents appreciate that their children are learning a tangible lesson. “I think it's really important looking at Catholic social justice teaching to make sure that children are aware there are people in our country who go hungry every day,” she said.

Both in the school cafeteria and in the kitchen at home, food often is devalued, she noted. “In the moment, we decide we want something and then we don't want it, so we just to throw it in the trash can,” she said. “That is not the way we as Catholics should treat the resources that God has given us. Food is something we appreciate, something we can share with those less fortunate than ourselves.” 

For more information on how the Diocese of Arlington is observing World Day of the Poor Nov. 19, go to arlingtondiocese.org/2017worlddayofthepoor.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017