Giving Leftovers a New Life

As a sophomore, Caroline Harkless organized the donation of lunch leftovers to provide 10,000 meals to individuals in need.

It all started with the trash.

After noticing a large volume of food being thrown away at the end of the Upper School lunch periods last year, Caroline Harkless ’21 started taking pictures of the trash cans with her phone. “There was so much food being thrown out;” said Harkless, “it was just a huge heart breaker to see.” USM chefs Dan Hoye and Jeff King, meanwhile, had also taken notice. “Jeff and I were discussing amongst ourselves, you know, what could we do with this food,” said Hoye. “We didn’t realize Caroline was also tackling the same issue.”

After getting the green light from Assistant Head of School Gregg Bach, as well as Hoye and King, Harkless contacted several local nonprofits to gauge interest in the school’s leftovers. She got an immediate response from Mequon-based Lumen Christi church, which had volunteers willing to take University School’s leftover food to partner organizations in downtown Milwaukee.

Caroline Harkless ’21 pictured with lunch leftovers.
Caroline Harkless ’21 pictured with lunch leftovers.

Each week, Hoye and King filled foil pans with leftover food they deemed safe to donate, and Harkless then carefully weighed and recorded each pan prior to pickup. “At first I was predicting maybe 30 to 50 pounds per week, but it blew up,” said Harkless. “It got way larger than we could have imagined.” In fact, the school donated an average of 400 to 500 pounds per week—equaling approximately 10,000 meals and 6 tons of food—over the course of the school year.

The volume, which might seem large, was not unexpected for Hoye, who has nearly three decades
of experience as a chef. “We’re always careful when we place our food orders,” he said. “We keep weekly production records of what we ordered, what we cooked, and what we had leftover, to inform future ordering. But we err on the side of having too much. When you average 1,300 meals per day over roughly 170 days of school each year, we think the margin of error is pretty good.”

Caroline Harkless ’21 (left), Justine Cole ’21 (center), and Basma Daham ’21 weighed food prior to it being picked  up by volunteers.
Caroline Harkless ’21 (left), Justine Cole ’21 (center), and Basma Daham ’21 weighed food prior to it being picked up by volunteers.

Harkless and Hoye intend to continue their work next school year. In fact, Hoye has been so impressed with Harkless that he obtained permission from FLIK Independent School Dining, the school’s food service provider, to purchase the foil pans for next year. “The project has brought us a lot of awareness and pushed us to be even more diligent with what we order,” he said. “Caroline is very proactive and easy to work with, and she’s always positive and happy.”

For Harkless, not only is the food being kept out of landfills, it’s going to feed those who need it most. “It makes my heart so happy to know that someone is getting the opportunity to eat this food that would have otherwise been thrown away. It’s an impact I never would’ve imagined.”

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