An apple on the teacher’s desk is charming; on a lunch tray, it’s a healthy snack. But what about the ones that are handed out every day in Eden Prairie school cafeterias and go uneaten?
Mrinalni Iyer arrived at Eden Prairie High School in the fall of 2016. Even as a 14-year-old, she noticed the amount of resources going to waste at lunch when students threw away untouched fruit and unopened drinks. And in other places, she knew people were going hungry because they couldn’t afford nutritious food to feed their families.
“So many resources get put into growing that single piece of fruit, gallons and gallons of water,” she said. “In the end, you want people to eat the fruit.”
Iyer decided to take action. Two problems, one solution: Donate the uneaten food from EPHS to a local food shelf. Problem solved, right?
The road to creating Eden Prairie Food Savers, Iyer’s club that has donated 3,180 pounds of fruit since it started in 2018, was trickier than getting food from Point A to Point B. To ensure that donated food is safe to eat, the Minnesota Department of Health has requirements for how it’s treated and transported at every step along the way.
“I had to contact around 11 to 12 food banks before one agreed to accept perishable products,” Iyer said.
Across the city, at PROP Food Shelf, fresh fruit is the most requested item for families who get their groceries from the nonprofit, said operations manager Cindy McPherson.
Iyer approached PROP and the Food Service Department at EPHS to propose her plan. Roxann Roushar is the district’s director of child nutrition and is familiar with this type of program, she said. The district had partnered with a Minneapolis-based food shelf years ago to donate unused food, but with high transportation costs and time-consuming logistics, the program dissolved.
“We didn’t have access to something like that for a number of years,” Roushar said.
Iyer set up a series of donation bins near where students return their lunch trays to collect donated fruit. She collects the fruit and takes it to storage in the kitchens before taking it to PROP several times a week. There are other food-based projects at the high school — the National Honor Society does a canned food drive every year, Iyer said — but Eden Prairie Food Savers is the only one tackling food waste.
In McPherson’s 10 years at PROP, Iyer is the most driven young donor she’s seen, she said.
“When kids are donating to kids, it’s really great,” McPherson said. “It might seem like a small thing, but it’s not.”
Iyer’s plan isn’t small. Since beginning food collection at EPHS, she’s expanded the program to Cedar Ridge Elementary by reaching out to other principals and asking if their schools could participate. All the donations allow PROP to buy other highly needed items with the money it might otherwise spend on fruit, McPherson said.
“It’s been a way for me to supplement things,” McPherson said.
Iyer isn’t slowing down any time soon. When students began putting unopened milk cartons in the donation bins, she began working to include the drinks in her donations, eventually applying for a grant from Hennepin County to buy a fridge to store the milk cartons as health codes require. She’s also working with the Tree Huggers Club and other students to create a team to run Eden Prairie Food Savers next year in order to keep the program going after she graduates in 2020.
“As a high schooler, I’ve always felt I’m too young to make a difference in the world,” Iyer said.
But since starting Eden Prairie Food Savers, that idea has changed. She’s also inspired by young activists like Malala Yousafzai, an activist for education and the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and Joshua Wang, a 16 year old who organized Hong Kong’s peaceful Umbrella Revolution that protested authoritarianism.
“I think more of us are removing our perceptions that youth can’t make a difference,” Iyer said. “With such inspiring individuals from our generation, it’s hard to deny that we can’t effect change.”
The adults and administrators who have worked with Iyer along the way certainly agree.
“She’s a go-getter and has great ideas and is going to go places for sure,” Roushar said.