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New York City’s Education Department recently launched a program allowing schools to donate unused packaged food to local food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters — an effort nearly two years in the making.

After a small group of schools piloted a food donation program, officials trained roughly 400 school food managers, supervisors, and directors earlier this year on how to set up their own programs, Chalkbeat has learned.

Every school will have the opportunity to opt into the effort, officials said. The Office of Food and Nutrition Services will help schools set up the procedures and equipment for donating untouched food, while a school’s administration will facilitate the donation to school community members or local pantries.

The program is gearing up at a critical moment, as pandemic-era family benefits dry up and childhood hunger is a growing concern. New York City has seen a 100% increase in the number of visits to food pantries by children and their families from pre-pandemic levels and 1 in 5 children don’t always know where their next meal will come from, according to food rescue group City Harvest.

Meanwhile, Mayor Eric Adams plans to reduce funding by about 56% for an emergency food program that works with about 500 community kitchens and food pantries citywide.

The school-based food donation program was “informed by conversations with several food pantries and best practices from existing school-based food pantries and ad hoc student-led food donation programs,” said Jenna Lyle, an Education Department spokesperson.

Since the program is just getting started, officials do not yet have data on participating schools, but said they plan to track how many opt into it.

Students, advocates, and elected officials have long tried to push the nation’s largest school system — which serves roughly 880,000 meals a day — to come up with a plan to divert food waste from landfills and into the hands of hungry New Yorkers. A Department of Sanitation study found that more than 40,000 tons of trash from New York City’s school buildings can be recycled, composted, or reused.

“There’s so much food being wasted,” said Eila Gandhi, a student at East Side Middle school.

Through the Middle School Leadership Council in Manhattan’s District 2, Eila has been working with Zoya Baulin, another East Side student, and Anya Bravin, from the Clinton School, on advocating for leftover packaged food from schools to go to homeless shelters and other anti-hunger organizations. But they kept hitting roadblocks, finding complicated rules and strict guidelines for donating the food and for shelters accepting the food.

They were happy to hear about the Education Department’s new program and are in touch with their principals about how their schools might participate.

“We feel like it could help so many different groups of people,” Anya said. “It can help people who have food insecurity. It could help schools get rid of this food. It can help homeless shelters to not have to feed so many people from their own money, and it could also help the environment.”

The Education Department’s food service team has been working to reduce excess food or leftovers whenever possible, said Lyle. “We applaud our students who are advocating for their communities and looking to support their local organizations and shelters.”

Rachel Sabella, director of No Kid Hungry New York, was encouraged to hear about the food donation program — especially now. Her advocacy organization recently polled public school families and found that nearly 9 in 10 reported that food prices were rising faster than their incomes.

“We look forward to learning more about this program expansion and the ways it can relieve the difficult choices too many families are forced to make between food, rent, and other necessities,” Sabella said in a statement.

Here’s what schools should know about participating in the program.

What’s the first step a school can take to participate in the program?

A school needs to set up what’s called a “share table,” where students can discard unopened packaged food or whole pieces of fruit from their trays, letting their peers pick up the food if they’d like.

Because of federal school food reimbursement regulations for meals — which are free for all New York City public school students — kids cannot, for instance, just take a cookie or an apple, but instead must take a complete meal with a protein and other food items. Because of that, many kids often end up tossing a lot of untouched food.

Several schools already have share tables set up in their cafeterias as a way to reduce food waste. (Education Department officials said they are in the process of collecting data on which schools have share tables.)

What food items are eligible for donation?

Only food from share tables can be donated.

The food must be non-perishable or unspoiled and must be donated within 36 hours of being served.

Where will the food donations go?

School leaders have two options:

  1. They can donate the food directly to their school community, with school leaders selecting students and families to participate, according to a January presentation given to schools. “[This] enables students and families in need, access to food right in their own schools,” the presentation stated. “This program will help to make balanced, nutritious meals a reality.”
  2. They can partner with an established local community food pantry or program that serves New Yorkers in need. The school can work with an organization to determine the food pick-up or delivery system.

Who will run the program at a school?

Principals must identify a “designee” to oversee the program. The designee can be a school staffer or a school community volunteer, such as a parent or guardian.

Students may volunteer to assist and support the program under that person’s guidance.

How will the food get from a cafeteria to families or organizations?

After each meal, whoever is running the program will evaluate food items left on the cafeteria’s share table. They — or student volunteers— will then place all eligible food items in a designated refrigerator or milk chest.

Each shelf must then be labeled with the date the items were placed there. And at the end of the last meal served (some schools serve breakfast, lunch, and after-school snacks), the person overseeing the program must complete a “daily food donation receipt,” submitted to an assigned kitchen staff member.

Amy Zimmer is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat New York. Contact Amy at