A redheaded girl lines up next to five other kindergartners and pours her milk into a black pail. She then tosses her empty milk carton in a giant blue trash bin in front of her. At Silverbrook Elementary School, children are learning from a very young age about the importance of recycling and helping those less fortunate.
“All the kids have been very receptive. They’re excited to be giving to such a good cause,” said Assistant Principal Joe Bosco.
Silverbrook started a new recycling program in April that not only recycles their cardboard waste, as mandated by the county, but also collects any unopened dairy, fruit and snack products and donates them to the Lorton Community Action Center, a local food bank. According to their Student School Meal Leftover Collection Record, Silverbrook has donated over 1410 cartons of milk, 606 yogurts, 389 string cheeses, 365 pieces of fruit, and almost 600 other packaged food snacks.
Students are also able to recycle their unopened plastic-wrapped utensils and straws, which are then reused within the school’s cafeteria and sometimes sent out to the LCAC if they are needed, said Bosco.
The program is the first of its kind in the South County Pyramid, said Valerie Finney, school librarian and leader of the program.
At the end of every breakfast and lunch, students line up at the end of the small cafeteria and throw their unopened utensils in one plastic bin, unopened straws in another, dump their half-eaten yogurt or other food product out into a big black trash bin and then throw the empty plastic containers into a big blue recycle can. There is another small bin for unopened milk and dairy products which Finney and a parent volunteer empty regularly into a large white refrigerator behind them.
Silverbrook had been recycling about 10 percent of their waste product prior to starting this “Going Green” initiative. Their goal is to reduce their waste by 30 percent, wrote Finney in the school’s monthly newsletter in June and she said they hope to have a compost pile set up for next year. Carol Keeth, a parent volunteer for the program, hopes to see paper added to the cafeteria's recylcing list as well for next year.
“We’re really educating children on making intelligent choices when they leave the cafeteria,” said Finney, who was also a Peace Corps volunteer. “We’re seeing how powerful this [program] can be, not only have we reduced our carbon footprint, but now I have kids coming in and wanting to talk to me about recycling.”
In November of last year, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) added language to the federal Good Samaritan Act clearing schools who donate unused food items to local food banks of any liability. Naturally, the schools still have to make best efforts toward the safety of the food provided—like having an extra refrigerator dedicated to donated dairy products—and food banks still have to meet state food codes.
Linda Patterson with the LCAC said the partnership with Silverbrook has been instrumental in her organization’s food donations to local underprivileged families. While donations have been getting tighter for many food banks in the nation as even the middle class feel the pinch of the economy, the dairy products have always been the hardest (and sometimes impossible notes Patterson) food donations to come by.
“It’s a great thing for the families and a good life lessons for the children to participate in this,” said Patterson. “They have the opportunity to not waste food and give it to someone else—that’s the kind of lesson that sticks with children over the course of their life. It helps move them outside a self-awareness toward a community-awareness.”