Klein College Strategic Communications grad student and Northeast High School teacher Amanda Fiegel led a team of students at the 2017 Aspen Challenge, a national competition that engages with the community to address social justice issues. Each year, the Aspen Challenge launches in a different city, and this year it came to Philadelphia, with 20 public and charter schools participating.
At the Aspen Institute forum in February, leaders, scholars and members of the public associated with the institute presented challenges to each participating group. Fiegel's group had to figure out how to minimize food waste—with the idea that this could be expanded on a larger scale.
The team decided to call themselves Meraki, which is Greek for putting "something of yourself" into what you're doing according to NPR, or "doing things with passion and love," according to Fiegel.
"We decided to focus on our own community, our own high school, looking at what food was being wasted in the cafeteria," Fiegel said.
Fiegel's team set out to collect wasted food and repurpose it to show the community how easy it is to reuse discarded food products.
"Once we started really collecting food and seeing the volume of food that was being wasted, we started to investigate the situation," Fiegel said.
First, the team met with the food service manager, who told them that as part of the district's universal feeding program, everyone gets free lunch. But to get free lunch, each student must take foods in three of the five food groups. The students may take the food, but they don't necessarily eat all of it.
"We saw this huge paradox, of this idea that you have to waste food in order to get free food," Fiegel said.
The team found that students discarded milk and fruit products the most.
"Every day, we were getting 60 plus milks that would have been thrown in the trash and over 65 pieces of fruit," Fiegel said. "And sometimes much more. If you multiply that by 300 Philadelphia school districts, that ends up being 648,000 gallons of milk a year, and over 13 million pieces of fruit."
They then collaborated with Harvard law students who focus on food policy reform. The students informed them that people of ethnic minority groups tend to be lactose intolerant, and many of Northeast High School's students fall into those minority groups.
"But yet they're forced to take milk," Fiegel said. "Why are we doing this? Why is the government imposing this? Who's benefitting from this?"
The team donates their collections to homeless veterans, and held workshops in their school to show the student body different ways to repurpose food. They had a "chopped" competition, worked with teen moms to teach them how to make smoothies with the discarded fruit and collaborated with the special education department.
"To see food in a different way," Fiegel said. "And to see that it doesn't have to be that thing that's thrown away or seen in isolation, it can be combined with other things to make it tasty and delicious."
Team Meraki will travel to Aspen on June 26 to present their findings to entrepreneurs and leaders at the Aspen Ideas Festival.