One afternoon last week at Fort Lincoln Elementary School in Mandan, kindergartner Traven Hanning placed a red apple on a cart parked in the middle of the cafeteria.
The portable cart, dubbed the "share table," allows students like Hanning to return unwanted food to the table, and it gives them an option to take an extra helping.
"I can't eat my apple because I might break my tooth," said Hanning, who indicated his front tooth was loose. Instead, he prefers milk and crackers, which he has taken before from the share table.
The table last week had apples, oranges and frozen peach slices. Often, a container filled with ice is overflowing with unopened cartons of milk, according to the school's principal, Pat Beckman.
Prepackaged, wrapped food items and beverages, including food with a peel, can be placed on the table and may be reused or donated to a local food bank. Mandan Public Schools donates some leftover food to Spirit of Life Roman Catholic Church in Mandan, which distributes the food to needy families in the community.
Mandan Public Schools started using share tables last month in an effort to reduce waste and provide extra nutrition to hungry students. Fort Lincoln Elementary School is one of five elementary schools in the district that has a share table.
Bismarck Public Schools has been using share tables since last school year. A majority of the the district's 16 elementary schools have the tables and, by next school year, all will have the tables.
In June 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a memo, encouraging districts to use share tables to eliminate waste in the federal school lunch program. USDA guidelines allow for food to be donated to nonprofit organizations, such as a food bank or a homeless shelter.
Mari Jo Sigl, outreach ministry coordinator for Spirit of Life church, said, about once a week, a volunteer with the church will pick up leftover, unopened food from Mandan schools. The food is handed out at the church's food pantry, which is open 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday. The leftovers from the schools help about 50 people a week.
"It’s absolutely amazing, because every day they don’t know how many kids are going to eat," Sigl said. "I would feel that (the schools) are happier to see that it’s going to go to probably some of the very same families that eat at school lunch."
Lennon Hagge Goethe, a kindergartner at Fort Lincoln Elementary School, placed his chocolate milk on the share table because he prefers strawberry milk. In situations such as this, the share table helps prevent food and beverages from going into the garbage.
"My initial thought was it's an opportunity to reduce waste and maybe serve the needs of a population of our students that could be looking for some additional item," Beckman said.
In December, at the same time the district was considering sharing tables, Fort Lincoln Elementary School Student Council requested a share table. Sundriana Shane, a fourth-grader on the student council, said she read about them online and asked to talk with her principal about it.
"Kids, they just dump the whole plate in the garbage," said Blaine Hoff, a fourth-grader and student council member. "I think they shouldn't waste it."
"It's a big waste and they pay a lot of money for it," she said, adding that sometimes she forgets to drink her milk, so she'll place it on the share table instead of throwing it away.
The USDA provides free and reduced-price lunch to students. In Mandan, the price for lunch at the elementary schools is $2.50.
Dell Nardello, a paraprofessional who volunteers once a week at Fort Lincoln Elementary School, said she's noticed a reduction in food being discarded.
"We used to throw all this milk and stuff out, (and I thought), isn't that sad?" Nardello said.
The Mandan elementary schools are serving as a pilot program for share tables and, next year, Heinert said the district is considering expanding the concept to Mandan Middle School.