Our group tried to start a food recovery initiative at Fort Lauderdale High School right before the pandemic, and before starting, we ran into several logistical issues including the purchase of a refrigerator and other staff available to help work with the cafeteria. Honestly, a big problem was affordability, and we wanted to create a solution that tackled exactly this.
What it does
Researchers at UCF found that lifting a ban on Solar PPA’s in Florida could produce enough solar energy to power all of the households in Miami and generate economic investment worth $3.9 billion. In Florida, nearly 90 percent of schools have the roof space, and Broward County already has a “FP&L Solar for Schools Program.” After expanding a similar program, Fairfax County, Virginia saved $60 million by going solar with PPAs. The solution for school districts in Florida may not be to lobby the state government in the short term, but to use existing policy infrastructure to draw up contracts similar to PPA's, like the FP&L program which allows for schools to build solar panels on their roofs without having to subsidize the construction. The loan is then paid through energy consumption. The connection between this and food waste is simple. Energy cost BCPS 50 million dollars in 2018 and it was the next most expensive budget item after teacher salaries. The fiscal opportunity that derives from PPA-driven savings could fix the affordability issue associated with food recovery. Figuring out how to safely store food is costly and difficult, which disproportionately stops students in low-income environments from seeking solutions to food waste problems in their own communities. But if we diverted the energy savings from PPA's and funded food recovery initiatives with the extra cash, every lunchroom would be provided a separate refrigerator to store the extra food, giving schools equal access to these benefits. Inspired by the Universal School Meals Program Act, extra money can be funneled into supplying cheaper meals if at least 30 percent of food came from a locally-sourced grower. The thing is, meals on average are subsidized by the federal government, but around 40 cents per meal is accounted into a budget shortfall that the district has to make-up. That's why creating incentives for schools that locally source food would, in combination with energy savings, cultivate an environment of sustainability. Prioritizing farm-to-table initiatives and working with food hubs (food hubs are companies that serve as the middle man between farms and the consumer, eliminating unneeded bureaucracy) saves the 20 billion pounds of food wasted on farms each year, while providing healthier food to students. The food is healthier because produce starts to lose nutrients over 24 hours after its been distributed. So the fresher the food, the more nutritious for the student. Moreover, a 2015 USDA study found that one in five districts had outsourced their meal programs to private organizations, which lowered the wages of cafeteria workers. These districts did this because they couldn't find solutions to budget shortfalls in their meal programs. Established energy savings allow us to stop outsourcing because they make up for the missing revenue, leading to increased food recovery, healthier meals, reduced emissions, and better-paid workers.
How we built it
We looked at the problem holistically and how food is broken down. We noticed three crucial steps: packaging, distribution, and waste management. From there, we identified how energy and cost efficiency was a key component of food waste, and this is how we were able to figure out our plan for solar energy savings through PPA's. Moreover, we filmed at one of our member's homes and used iMovie for editing. Each one of us was in the video.
Challenges we ran into
In creating our solution, we ran into several feasibility issues. For instance, our original solution was to go after creating an app that would track students and their meals much like contract tracing technology can be applied to tracking coronavirus variants. However, the viability of such a platform is dependent on if students volunteer to sign into the app, whether they have access to technology, and so, our team decided to go after an "ideas" track.
Accomplishments that we're proud of
Getting over the hurdle of realizing where we were wrong! It was pretty amazing to us how we'd been able to film, edit, write a script, and meet up all in one day, especially since a few of us had taken the SAT in the morning.
What we learned
Our school district spends tens of millions of dollars on energy that is mostly derived from natural gas, but they can save close to 20 million dollars if they adapt to PPA contracts. We also learned that the most common food item purchased by students in BCPS is chicken nuggets (really, all chicken-based products), and that all of our corn and green beans are locally sourced. None of the other produce is, however. And something that really surprised us is that South Florida is actually responsible for feeding an exceedingly large portion of the eastern U.S. So really, what we do here to battle against food waste affects the most-densely populated regions of America.
What's next for Sky to Earth
We want to take action and encourage the district at meetings to take steps to proactively save money after losing millions in the budget shortfalls brought on my COVID. Depending on the state to eliminate a ban on PPA's would take too long, but if we presented to the district a plan that outlined how much money they could save and reapportion to other areas where the money hasn't filled-in, they might just adopt contracts with enough public approval. Moreover, the district could use existing infrastructure and agreements, such as from the FP&L Solar for Schools Program, to expand on solar energy. The same could be said for the growers BCPS already uses to source its corn and green beans.