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Shawn Vestal: Student launches program to collect school food for the hungry

Lewis and Clark High School junior Josh Hechtman is starting a new project at LCHS to capture and re-use food waste in the coming year. He received a small grant from the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund to set up bins around the cafeteria for unused, packaged food that students bring from home, to divert it to the school pantry, which will donate food to students in need. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

If you’ve been in a school cafeteria, you know where a lot of food goes: into the garbage.

And if you’ve been in Spokane for any length of time, you know that a lot of people here struggle to put food on the table.

Josh Hechtman wants to find ways to take some of the wasted food from the cafeteria at Lewis and Clark High School and make it available to students whose families need help.

“Last year during lunches I noticed students – me included – just casually throwing away granola bars, bags of chips, an orange …,” said Hechtman, a 16-year-old junior at LC. “I realized we could probably do something with that food.”

Hechtman has formed a club, ReProduce 81, with the goal of reusing some of the safe, packaged foods that might otherwise go to waste in the cafeteria. He’s particularly focused on items that students bring from home, as opposed to cafeteria lunches. Hechtman has gotten a grant from the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, has coordinated with the head of the district’s nutrition services, Doug Wordell, and is recruiting club members to help gather food at 12 spots throughout the school.

“I love the idea,” Wordell said. “We really would like to reduce waste.”

It’s not just a school issue. Tons of food is wasted every day in America. A USDA study published earlier this year estimated that the average American wastes a pound of food every day. The waste would be enough to feed some 2 billion people annually.

Spokane Public Schools has undertaken a variety of efforts to reduce food waste. It has shifted to more scratchmade food in recent years, partly to improve taste and nutrition, but also to combat waste. More food is made to order to prevent leftovers. More choices are offered, and students are encouraged to pick only what they really want to eat.

“Thirty years ago, when you went into a high school cafeteria you got chili, chili or chili,” Wordell said.

Hechtman, who also plays football and tennis at LC, has spent the summer trying to get his program ready to launch. He formed his organization under the umbrella of the Spokane Edible Tree project, which was founded by Councilwoman Kate Burke, and has gotten help from Burke and other local politicians in building community support.

As a volunteer at the House of Charity, he’s seen how a program that relies heavily on donations of food that might otherwise go to waste can work – and he found that helping others can be deeply gratifying. He was impressed by the T-shirt one of the shelter’s lunch clients was wearing one day: “It had ‘Homeless’ crossed out, replaced with ‘Human,’ ” he said.

Hechtman’s charitable impulse is tied to his love of food and cooking. He is a fan of food TV, he said, and has an aunt in the Los Angeles area, Dana Hechtman, who is a private chef. He visits her regularly, and they go on food tours of the city – “places only chefs would know,” he said.

He and his aunt are talking about writing a cookbook with the proceeds going to charity. His parents are Todd Hechtman, a sociology professor at Eastern Washington University, and Wendy Ayers. Cooking for his mother when she was injured a few years back helped to cement his interest in cuisine.

ReProduce 81 has a threefold purpose: the food reuse project; an effort to encourage student volunteerism; and working to educate people about reducing food waste, including possibly producing a video on the subject.

Hechtman’s plan is to have club members staff stations in the school during lunches, with bins where students can leave unused items. He and his fellow volunteers will have to ensure the items are unopened and safe, and would then give them to the school’s food pantry, which donates food to students in need.

It’s a relatively simple and safe procedure for packaged, nonperishable items and some fresh items; if he plans to move into redistributed packaged dairy products or the like, such as milk or string cheese, he will need to jump through the hoops to get permission from the Spokane Regional Health District, Wordell said.

If everything goes as he hopes, Hechtman would like to see his project expanded to other schools. After all, he notes, a significant number of his fellow students in Spokane are “food insecure” – a 2014 community survey showed that 16 percent of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders said they’d skipped a meal because there wasn’t enough to eat at home.

“I wanted to do my part to try and fix that,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Sept. 4, 2018 to remove incorrect information naming Ayers’ profession.

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