Simple but genius: Program turns leftover school lunch into a buffet for take-home meals

One More Meal launches pilot program in Metro Detroit

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As teachers dismiss classes for the day and high school students flood the hallways, ready to go home, three juniors are set up in the cafeteria, prepared to serve food.

The halls are buzzing with chatter as the Detroit-area students grab their bags and wrap up, but inside the school lunchroom, it’s fairly quiet. Those three 11th-graders, Anthony Mendoza, Aleksandra Kole and Jenna Chimenti, talk among themselves until they realize they should flag down some students themselves. An announcement blares over the loudspeaker, mentioning One More Meal -- the reason Mendoza, Kole and Chimenti are here -- but the cafeteria isn’t filling up as quickly as these student-volunteers would like.

“Where’s our hype man?” one of them asks, and Mendoza takes it upon himself to go round up some hungry students. Assistant principal Kevin Knierim joins him, calling out the door, “Anybody hungry?” to the bustling hallway filled with teens.

This setup, as mentioned, is called One More Meal, and it’s a pilot program that launched in October 2018.

Right now, student-volunteers put on One More Meal two days a week at the Michigan school. But people involved with the program are considering adding another day, and founder Calli Brannan said she’d love to see One More Meal expand even more.

How it works

The program is Brannan’s brainchild, but it’s run by the students, who have “complete control,” Brannan said. Doing it this way teaches the students business skills and food safety skills, and ultimately, makes them more invested overall.

“I just watch and basically make sure no one sneezes on the food,” Brannan said with a laugh.

That’s about half-true. Brannan does a lot -- but it’s fair to say that the students run the show: setting up, encouraging people to come grab a bite, engaging with their classmates, serving their peers and then cleaning up at the end.

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The program is intended to help students who perhaps don’t get enough to eat at home, or just anyone who's interested. The cool part is, no one at One More Meal really cares about why someone’s lining up for a carryout box. Students don’t have to sign in or do anything official. Whoever’s hungry, for any reason, is welcome to come snag a box.

The student-volunteers welcome their fellow classmates as they come in with warm smiles and greetings. Some kids come through every day, but that's definitely not the case for everyone, Brannan said.

“It’s nice to have the food,” Knierim said. “Especially for kids who are on campus all day.”

Solid point: For anyone who’s been a high-schooler involved in extracurriculars or after-school activities, or parents who’ve picked up their teens at 5 or 6 p.m., they know -- those days can certainly be long, and students can get really hungry.

What’s on the menu?

The student-volunteers are actually serving leftovers from the previous day’s school lunch.

The cafeteria staff waits for the food to cool down after that day’s lunch, and then they’re OK to package up the leftovers to refrigerate, according to food safety guidelines.

It works out well: Students might not want to eat the same thing twice in one day, for example, the same meal for lunch and then dinner. But this way, the teens have some variety and the food is still put to good use.

The student-volunteers dole out the meal, which is set up like a buffet. If someone wants to come through and take only macaroni and cheese or only mandarin oranges (a recent popular item), he can. The group offers a fair number of pre-wrapped sandwiches and burgers as well -- whatever they have on hand. Those items tend to be popular, likely because they’re easy to grab.

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The meal used to be set up pre-packaged into carryout-style boxes, as in, everything was ready to go, with something like a main course and two sides. These days, students can customize their boxes however they would like.

Often, they’re able to use everything up. Other times, Brannan said she takes leftovers to her office. She wants to be able to partner with another organization that could perhaps take the food. Brannan is a few steps ahead, and she seems like she’s thought of everything, which makes sense, really, considering how well the program is run, and how seamless it is.

Why don’t we do this everywhere?

You know how some of the best ideas are the simplest ones? You might ask yourself, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

One More Meal might leave you with a similar feeling.

The concept is easy: easy to understand, and seemingly, fairly easy to implement. It might make you think, “Why don’t all schools run something like this?”

Brannan said sometimes a school could lack, or have limited, refrigeration -- so that could be a problem when you’re thinking large-scale.

But what else would happen to all this leftover food?

Brannan said schools typically throw their leftovers away after lunch. Sure, if an item is packaged or it’s something like whole fruit, it’s likely saved.

“However, everything we collect would have just been tossed in the trash if we weren't there to repackage it,” she added.

The setup only takes a few minutes. And there aren’t many supplies or costs involved. Brannan said it’s mostly just the serving pans and to-go boxes that she has to consider.

Student involvement

The student-volunteers truly care about the program, and want to see it succeed and improve.

Mendoza doesn’t love the single-use boxes, and has brought up some ideas on how to make One More Meal even more of a zero-waste operation.

Kole said getting involved with One More Meal has been "really fun."

Brannan said she’s looking into the ideas offered by the student-volunteers -- and she loves how they’ve embraced the program.

How this came to be

Brannan is only 24 years old, but said she's seen a lot of poverty over the years and felt compelled to get involved. She got the idea for One More Meal about 4 ½ years ago.

“I hate watching food go to waste, especially when there are people who need it,” she said.

Brannan worked with a group called the Food Recovery Network while she was in college, and she said that was the organization that sparked her passion for food waste -- or rather, it got her thinking about what we can do to combat the problem. She then founded a chapter of Food Recovery Network, and from there, “I was hooked on feeding people and reducing waste,” Brannan said.

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Still, things she notices now are a bit different than what she remembers. Or maybe it’s just a different situation, depending on where you’re from. When Brannan was in high school and college, and she heard the words “free food,” she’d jump at the opportunity, like it was a good thing.

Now she sees that’s not the mentality everywhere. There’s kind of a stigma around free food at some high schools.

“We have to remove the stigma,” she said.

Back at school

It helps the cause to have students like Mendoza, outside in the hallway, encouraging students to come grab a burger or fill up a quick box.

This is “a group that doesn’t look down on people,” Brannan said.

It also helps that the food looks pretty delicious. On one Thursday in mid-May, the offerings included a good handful of pre-wrapped sandwiches, a huge salad, burgers, pasta and some Mexican food.

But Brannan knows it can be a hard sell. A student once told her, “School food is one thing. Reheated school food is another.”

She’s considered that too, and said she’s been mulling some ideas for further down the line to make the food seem more enticing: recipe cards, perhaps, to help repurpose the food, or maybe a sauce bar.

Knierim has watched the program unfold, and said he has teacher friends who are increasingly interested in a program like this one.

“Hopefully it’ll keep growing,” he said.