Natalie Avila peeks into baskets on the common table for a second helping… (Christina House / For the…)
Every day, fourth-graders Lesly Heredia and Paulina Sanchez watched as their classmates tossed uneaten school lunches into trash bins before bolting to the playground.
The 9-year-olds found it hard to see all that food going to waste, so they came up with a plan: Why not give it to needy families in the area?
"We thought about all the kids who didn't have food," Paulina said. "They could get injured or get sick. It makes me feel proud that we came up with an idea."
The girls, who attend Jaime Escalante Elementary School in Cudahy, decided they needed to quantify how much food was going to the garbage. So they counted every trashed lunch.
They discovered that their classmates discarded more than 500 items a week. And they made a graph to display their work.
While on a visit to the school, Cudahy Mayor Josue Barrios was approached by Principal Beth Fuller, who told him about the girls' plan.
"This is not something I would ever have thought of," Barrios said. "When I was in fourth grade, I was more concerned with pulling girls' hair."
But these fourth-graders used their recess in a more productive fashion. They composed a letter to Dennis Barrett, Los Angeles Unified School District's food services director, and then they followed up.
"Once we sent the letter," Fuller said, "I think every day they came and asked me, 'Did we get a response yet, Ms. Fuller? Did we get it?'"
At the end of September, Barrett wrote back. He explained that the Board of Education had passed a resolution in April that laid out a food donation policy allowing nonprofit agencies to collect and distribute unopened lunch items. He added that the girls might set up a "common table" where students could leave school food they don't eat for others who wanted seconds or who wanted to try something new.
Currently, 71 schools in the district donate unopened food to 21 agencies across the county, Barrett said.
Los Angeles Unified introduced a new menu of more healthful offerings this year, but many students across the school system have rejected those options. The district announced that it would revamp the menu to better accommodate the students' tastes.
On a recent day, menu items at Jaime Escalante included chicken curry, vegetable lasagna and the coveted pizza calzone. About 81% of the school's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
But when the calzones were gone, older students stood on tiptoe and peeked at the common table, – a cart stacked high with small plastic food containers.
And although several students did pick up seconds, most of the calzone seekers struck out.
"The little kids are always first in line," Lesly said as she placed chicken curry and pear on the cart. "It's unfair."
In January, representatives from the Southeast Churches Service Center will begin picking up leftover items on the common table. The center expects to take more than 100 items per trip, including entrees, fruits and vegetables and unopened cartons of white milk.
To facilitate the donations, Barrios connected the girls with Andy Molina, executive director of the center.
Molina said his organization typically serves about 1,200 families, but during the holiday season, the number has spiked to 3,000. The school's donations will help to see the center through its busiest period.
Based on their research, Lesly and Paulina concluded that sweet potatoes are students' least favorite item.
"They're sort of orange and curly," Paulina said. "For me, they're too sweet."
Molina, who met with the girls and heard their complaints about the school lunches, said his center buys certain products at the families' request. As it turns out, there is one particular item families crave.
"People actually ask, 'Do you have any more sweet potatoes?' " Molina said. "When are you getting some?'
"So when I heard that, to me, it was great."