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PORTAGE | No matter what you give some youngsters to eat for breakfast or lunch at school, they won't like it.

That food — perfectly good cartons of milk, packages of crackers, pre-wrapped muffins and containers of yogurt — often ends up in the trash can.

To help reduce the food waste, Portage Township Schools recently initiated a sharing program.

They've centered "share tables" in each of the district's 11 school cafeterias. Students who don't like what they've been served for lunch can take the item and place it on the designated table. Other students who aren't quite satiated can take the food and either eat it then or take it with them for a later snack or even take it home.

Leftover items are donated to the Portage Township Food Pantry, Gabriel's Horn Homeless Shelter or Salvation Army of Porter County.

In the first three weeks of February alone, the district rescued and donated more than 1,500 cartons of milk, 400 cartons of yogurt, 400 packages of string cheese and 450 juice cups.

What food is shared between the students is difficult to determine.

At the high school, Stephens said, there's rarely anything left over. At other schools, many items are snapped up in moments.

The program is run under both federal and Porter County Department of Health guidelines, said Marsha Stephens, director of food services.

Stephens heard about the Food Rescue program last fall when she attended the Indiana School Nutrition state conference in October. Her interest coincided with members of the Portage Township School Board having lunch at schools during the Thanksgiving break.

"Many of the board members commented that they were wasting a lot of food, that it was going into the garbage," said School Board President Cheryl Oprisko, adding they asked Superintendent Richard Weigel to look into it.

"We have a lot of kids who are hungry. They can put it in their backpack and take it home. We don't care," said Oprisko.

Weigel approached Stephens and administrators began working on a policy, scheduled to be adopted at the board's meeting on Monday.

Stephens said county health department regulations limit what can be shared to pre-packaged foods such as milk, yogurt, cereal, string cheese, juice cups, crackers, muffins, bagels, chips, PB&J sandwiches and granola or breakfast bars. The regulations further limit what food can be shared among the students and what can be kept and donated.

Stephens said any foods that have to be refrigerated or could be harmful to children if not refrigerated are kept and donated.

"Food pantries don't get milk, so it is a big deal to them," Stephens said. 

The department's delivery man delivers boxes of the food twice a week, on Tuesdays to the Salvation Army to coincide with their food distribution day and on Fridays to the food pantry, their distribution date. Deliveries are made to the homeless shelter when they have a need.

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Porter County Reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for nearly 40 years, including 23 years with The Times. She's a native of Merrillville, but has lived in Portage for 39 years. She covers municipal and school government in Porter County.