If food waste were a country, it would be the third worst emitter of greenhouse gas emissions of all the nations in the world.  That fact failed to intimidate a team of school children in the US state of Maryland, who’ve proven they can reduce food waste in their schools by 80% or more. Building on their success, they convinced their state government to pass a new law allocating $250,000 to expand Rotary’s Lunch out of Landfills program to schools across the state.  Despite the country’s bitter partisan divisions, the students’ proposal passed unanimously in the Maryland State Senate, then by a vote of 127-4 in the House. The legislative support was so powerful that the Governor, Larry Hogan, scheduled a public event to sign it into law April 22, the day before Earth Day.

To advocate for their proposal, students testified before Senate and House committees in late January. 2022 about their success with Lunch out of Landfills, which was spearheaded by Rotarian Joe Richardson. They then went home and got fellow students busy writing about it. Richardson rented a bus and took group of 27 students back to the state capitol to hand-deliver 6,000 post cards to legislators before the draft school composting bills came up for a vote.

Here’s how students are achieving such huge reductions in food waste. After eating at school, they sort food waste into liquid, compostable scraps, recyclables, and food that can be safely sent to local hunger programs.  In this video, Joe and a team of elementary students show you how they do it.

Start-up costs for the program in Maryland average $2,000 per school including equipment and training, but the program more than pays for itself in savings on waste disposal and trash bags. 

Most importantly, students from elementary to high school have discovered their power to increase food security and implement climate solutions. “When food is thrown into landfills and incinerators, it creates methane and greenhouse gasses,” explains Ethan Weiss from Bethesda High School near Washington, DC.  “On the other hand, when food waste is composted, it turns to carbon-capturing and nutrient-rich soil that can be used to grow new foods. Unlike anything else, 100% of the foods we throw into trash can be recycled [composted] into soil.” “We see so much food being wasted and thrown away in school,” says Advika Agarwal, freshman from Richard Montgomery High School. “We know how many hungry families live here. Students want to do more to not only reduce greenhouse gasses with compost programs, but also to help feed the hungry in our community.”   Two elementary schools in Frederick County sent over 7,600 pieces of fruit to pantries in three months.

The campaign for the school-based composting law exemplifies how Rotarians leverage more good by collaborating with other stakeholders. The students formed a “Coalition to Reimagine School Waste” with help from the nonprofit Youth Creating Change (YCC), which teaches young people to find practical solutions to problems they see in their communities. The student coalition partnered with Joe Richardson’s environmental education program Mountainside Education and Enrichment, and the Maryland Public Health Association.

The students are continuing their leadership work with local policy makers.  “Ethan Weiss and Interact members Advika Agarwal and Angelina Xu presented to the Montgomery County School Board in early April,” Joe Richardson reports. “Two weeks later, on April 13th, 5th grader Quinn Wagner and  10th grader Abby Lapadula, Interact member Paige Smith, and I presented before the Frederick County School board requesting/demanding expansion of the program.  As the programs move forward next year, local Rotary cCubs will be providing mini-refrigerators to schools for share tables and food recovery to local food banks, and students will be adopting the NexTrex challenge, NexTrex.com, which collects plastic film, plastic bags, sandwich bags, bubble wrap, and unrecyclable plastic packaging, which will reduce landfill-designated waste by over 90%.

Lunch out of Landfills requires diligent planning and diplomatic work to build an effective partnership of the local school district, individual schools (especially custodial staff), and solid waste authorities. The best solutions will vary depending on local resources and logistics. Joe Richardson has developed a Lunch out of Landfills toolkit and a succinct step-by-step guide.