Coalition of Maryland students and schools

Montgomery County Food Waste youth team gathering at a government building to advocate for a food waste bill.

In early 2022, students from Maryland visited the state capital building in Annapolis and helped pass state legislation aimed at reducing the impacts of food waste on our environment.

In 2021, a group of Maryland high school students (Capital Compost from Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Compostology from Richard Montgomery High Schools) noticed the vast amount of food thrown away every day at school – roughly 40% of the garbage contained food scraps, uneaten/unopened food, and paper trays, and only 10% consisted of trash that actually needed to be landfilled or incinerated. Understanding the impact of landfills and incinerators on climate change, and how many hungry families live in their county, these students realized if they could change this behavior, they could make a difference for both the environment and for their local community.

The students formed the Coalition to Re-Imagine School Waste, a student-run group based in Montgomery County, Maryland and is currently expanding to other states including New Hampshire and Virginia. The Coalition partnered with BAR-T Mountainside, a nonprofit that brings together local officials, lawmakers, and other stakeholders, and has established food waste diversion programs in public schools around the county and state. The Coalition applied to and was awarded a grant from WWF’s Food Waste Warrior program, which provides funding and project support for teachers, administrators, and students to implement food waste reduction practices at their schools. Food Waste Warrior aims to turn cafeterias into classrooms—helping students to conduct food waste audits, advocate on the issue of food waste, and identify creative ways to reduce it. Upon receiving the grant, the Coalition piloted composting programs at local elementary and middle schools, prioritizing lower-income areas. Student ‘ambassadors’ from the upper grades guided younger students in the lunchroom on the proper ways to separate food into clearly labeled containers for recycling plastics and composting food scraps. The Coalition also worked with local food centers to recover and redirect unopened packaged food and fresh fruits and veggies to families in need.

Building on their local efforts in the community, these remarkable students then set their sights on state-level policy change, collaborating with Maryland delegates to help introduce and advocate for new legislation that would create a grant program allowing more schools in Maryland to receive funds for compost and food recovery efforts. These state grants would cover creating separate bins in cafeterias to collect leftover food and the necessary transportation to get it to a composting facility, arranging for unopened school food to be donated or redistributed to students, educating students about food waste and how to prevent it, and more.

To encourage the House and Senate to support these bills, the Coalition led two postcard-writing campaigns over two years, showcasing the voices of students across Maryland counties in a creative and impactful way. Once the postcard template was designed, it was printed and adapted for individual schools to allow students to address their local representatives, defending the impact of food waste and the importance of this bill for a greener future. The Coalition collected roughly 6,000 thoughtful postcards and hand-delivered many of them to approximately 100 representatives during the first year. The year after, the movement expanded, and the Coalition collected about 12,000 postcards from across 14 counties, then presented them in-person at the state capitol. Many of the volunteers that learned of food waste action through the campaign will soon begin their own school composting programs. The entire experience was a remarkable lobbying effort that demonstrated the power of student action and student voices by allowing them to see first-hand how their efforts can change policy favorably.

In addition to these efforts made by the Coalition, additional endeavors were carried out by other student groups across Montgomery and Frederick counties, including students affiliated with BAR-T Mountainside, to spread the importance of food waste reduction. These efforts included securing funding and establishing programs at multiple elementary schools.

This is just the beginning! The Grant Program to Reduce & Compost School Waste has passed, and the students hope to engage between 150 and 250 more schools in composting, share tables, and other sustainability efforts in the 2023-24 school year. The hope is that this legislation will push the state to invest more into these efforts, enabling all schools and surrounding communities to make food-saving practices a standard.

© Courtesy of Advika Agarwal and Angelina Xu