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Inspiring Women on a Mission: Renee Blue and Jennifer Kainz

women on a mission Aug 23, 2018

Over the years, Mindful Waste co-founders Renee Blue and Jennifer Kainz have become, as Renee puts it, “cafeteria groupies.” They started out as volunteers working in the lunchrooms of their children’s schools.

But now, they are there for the garbage.

As volunteers, they were horrified to see how much edible food goes from the cafeteria tray straight into the garbage. This is even more disturbing when you consider how many people go hungry each day.  (Nationally, it is estimated that 40% of the food produce isn’t eaten and ends up in landfills or incinerated.)

And it really isn’t the kids’ fault. Everything from adult attitudes towards food waste to the way school lunches are structured contributes to the problem. Elementary school children often only have a 20-minute lunch period and they can lose up to half that time being in the cafeteria line, getting utensils and finding a seat.

“We as adults are teaching our school-age children that food waste is acceptable,” said Renee. “We not only condone it, but we are complicit in its creation.”  

When Renee, a writer and educator, witnessed this problem as a PTO volunteer in her son’s school and started to question why so much food was wasted, someone told her she should meet another mom, Jennifer Kainz, who was getting her master’s degree in Conservation Biology.

The two met and decided that something needed to be done. They founded Mindful Waste with a simple goal: Inform people about the impact of food waste on the environment, educate communities – particularly school children – about ways to prevent food waste, and connect unwanted, edible food with those who need it.

The two began conducting food waste audits in local schools which confirmed what they already knew – kids were throwing away food at an alarming rate.

On a local level, the women knew they had to somehow get food out of the waste stream. There decided there were two main ways this could be accomplished - food recovery and composting of food waste.

Food recovery is focused on encouraging kids to bring home the food they don’t eat – whole cartons of unopened milk, fruit with the peel still on or unopened packaged items like string cheese. Or, alternatively, to place those items that can be rescued into a special bin, where they will be stored in a refrigerator and then taken to a local food bank or pantry.

One school that Mindful Waste works with routinely recovers 150 8-ounce milk cartons a week. That’s 1,200 ounces of milk each week that goes to nourish families instead of rotting in a landfill.

Mindful Waste also hosts events and works to teach children about how food gets from the farm or factory to their table at home or at school. They offer programs on composting and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty – one of their more popular classes in schools is about vermiculture, or worm compositing.

The two women also advocate for longer lunch periods, as studies have show that even increasing a 20-minute lunch break by 10 minutes drives down food waste dramatically.

But Mindful Waste’s work isn’t just educating and advocating. They also offer practical support to schools, helping them source the necessary materials – such as dedicated refrigerators, scales and bins – so they can more easily rescue edible food from the garbage. They also mentor other communities to replicate the success they’ve had in their hometown of Barrington, IL.

Renee and Jennifer have demonstrated that food abandoned by kids in the cafeteria does not have to be wasted and can be repurposed to solve another problem in the United States – chronic hunger. One in six people nationally go to bed hungry, and about a third of them are children.

The two women say their hope is that through these efforts, the next generation will be more mindful of their impact on the environment and be empowered, knowing that with a healthy respect for our natural resources and a little care and planning, there’s enough food to go around for everyone.

Check out Mindful Waste’s website. It is inspiring, it shows how these efforts can be replicated in your community, and it has terrific resource sections, including several short films on the issue of food waste in America.

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