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by Claire Stanford

My school lunch awakening began the summer after I graduated from college, in 2006, when I volunteered as a counselor at a free day camp in New Haven, Connecticut. The point of the camp was many-fold: to teach kids about the environment, to keep kids off the street and out of trouble all day, and to exhaust them enough during the day that they’d stay out of trouble when we let them out, too. And, importantly, to give them free breakfast, lunch, and snack every day, provided by the New Haven public school system.

For many kids, school lunch (and the less well-known school breakfast) serve the invaluable function of providing two guaranteed meals a day, something I didn’t realize until that summer. Kids were allowed to bring their own lunch; out of the forty-or-so kids, I could probably count the number who actually did bring brown-bags on one hand.

Every day at noon, the kids would sit in a big circle on the floor, and we would pass out lunch, the most typical one being a baloney and cheese sandwich (one slice of baloney and one slice of processed American cheese on white sandwich bread), a bag of carrots, and a small carton of chocolate milk. In the middle of the circle were three bins labeled trash, recycling, and food waste. The plastic wrappers for the sandwiches and the carrots went in the trash bin, the milk cartons in the recycling, and anything the kids didn’t eat into the food waste. At the end of every lunch, after everything had been cleaned up, one counselor would weigh the bin of food waste. We recorded these weights on a chart posted on the blackboard; the goal was to get below one pound of food waste. If the goal was reached, the head of the camp promised, she would shave off her eyebrows.