Ashley Croney said she noticed one day last fall during lunch at Desert Hills Middle School how much food was being thrown away.
The 14-year-old eighth-grader said most of the food being tossed was fruits and vegetables that students were required to put on their trays as part of nutrition guidelines. But the students weren't required to eat them, so unpeeled bananas and uneaten apples ended up in the trash can.
"I ended up going to the office and asked if there was someone I could talk to about donating that food," Ashley said.
That began Ashley's months-long effort to set up a system to provide the untouched food to the Union Gospel Mission in Pasco. She worked with Kennewick School District officials and the mission to get the donations arranged, navigating legal and logistical issues, but it's starting its third week and is going well.
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"It could turn into something humongous," said Jerry Jones, the mission's food services director.
Ashley was put in contact with Kristin Swaggart, assistant director of nutritional services for Sodexo, the contractor that runs the meal programs for Kennewick schools, as well as schools in Richland and Burbank.
Swaggart said she was glad to help set something up, but there were a number of hurdles to overcome, such as getting legal paperwork filed that would protect Sodexo and the district from any issues arising from food donations.
"I didn't want to jump into it and start donating and then learn about problems," she said.
Ashley said she had to research the state's Good Samaritan law to make sure the program could go through and also identify an organization to accept the food.
That led Ashley to the mission, which serves 250 meals a day to the homeless and others coming to the shelter for help. Jones said the organization receives the bulk of its donations from grocery stores and restaurants, but every bit helps.
Now Desert Hills students can donate uneaten fruit by putting it in a designated basket in the lunchroom. That food is set aside until enough is collected to have the mission pick it up.
Despite only two weeks worth of donations, she and school officials said the response from students has been great. Ashley said she's seen the basket filled several times after all the lunch periods for a single day. And more than fresh produce is being donated -- prepared food such as excess meatballs, bread and Salisbury steak make it to the mission as well.
"There really isn't anything else we can do with it after we've prepared it," Swaggart said.
Aria Brookshire, Ashley's mother, said she is proud of her daughter for her dedication to the project.
"She was pretty persistent," Brookshire said. "We've got fortunate kids and we're glad they're thinking of others as well."
Everyone involved with the program would like to expand it throughout the area, but progress will take time. Jones said the mission can only store so much food before a planned dining and storage facility can be built. Swaggart said more charitable groups need to be identified to receive some of the food.
For Ashley, she said she was glad it all came together, despite potential troubles with red tape and logistics.
"I think the main thing is they didn't think I'd follow through with it," she said of initial naysayers.