Sometimes the fruit was claimed seconds after being placed in the bucket by a student looking for a little extra lunch. When the returned fruit was not eaten during lunch it was collected by staff, washed and made available free of cost at other times in the day. Often, the food was claimed by children who cannot afford to purchase a snack.
A federal law that took effect this fall requires students to take a piece of fruit with their lunch - whether they want it or not. The law's intention is to get more students to eat fruit, an essential component of a balanced lunch. Unfortunately, many students at every grade level choose not to eat the fruit so it ends up in the trash. The give-back program run by the schools and their food service provider The Abbey Group was featured in a front page story in the Banner Friday that highlighted the positive outcomes of the program. However, by lunch time on Friday state Health Inspector Thomas Hubbel paid Mount Anthony Union Middle School a visit and told administration the program must be stopped.
In his written notice to SVSU and The Abbey Group, Hubbel cited state law and wrote "the reserving of fruits is prohibited - cease this practice immediately."
Elisabeth Wirsing, food and lodging program chief for the Department of Health, said the state law prohibiting redistribution of food is based on federal code and intended to protect consumers. "It's really in place to limit cross-contamination issues with germs or bacteria that may be present not only on hands but also containers or trays (or other) environments," she said.
Maureen O'Neil, director of The Abbey Group, estimated that from 100 to 200 pieces of fruit have been returned on a daily basis since the start of the school year throughout the nine SVSU schools in Bennington, Shaftsbury, North Bennington, Pownal and Woodford. Even days when 200 students chose not to eat their fruit, O'Neil said it was easy to find 200 more students who took an additional piece. "It's a real shame ... we're in such a poor region here, and the thought of throwing food away is sickening," O'Neil said. "It's really devastating."
The poverty rate in Bennington's elementary schools alone is about 70 percent.
Hubbel's order was the first O'Neil said she had heard of the law. After receiving the news she emailed principals and Abbey Group personnel telling them the practice must end. The news was met with disappointment from the schools, but by Monday no fruit return bins could be found in cafeterias.
"The feedback I've gotten is, "You're kidding. What a shame. And our kids, they're hungry," O'Neil said. "Everyone is pretty upset about it."
Often, especially at the seven elementary schools, the fruit was given away during school snack breaks when even children who qualify for free or reduced price lunch have to pay full price for snacks. O'Neil said making returned fruit available free of cost at snack not only helped feed hungry children who could not afford a snack, but it also helped prevent them from feeling ostracized.
MAUMS has been planning to implement a composting program that, once up and running, will turn the unwanted fruit into compost, but for the time being it is being thrown into refuse bins. Other schools may come up with composting programs in the future as well, O'Neil said, but none of the schools now have composting receptacles in cafeterias. Wirsing said she has not heard of any other schools in the state that have a return program in place, but she said one school contacted her office to see whether it would be allowed.
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