(Texas Tribune) -- In more than 40 years of working in El Paso ISD's cafeterias, Olimpia Estrada has seen the amount of wasted food drop dramatically as officials have established programs allowing the redistribution of leftover food. But they still have a long way to go.
"Anything to cut down on the waste and not feed the trash can, I think would be good," Estrada said.
Estrada and cafeteria managers across the state now have an increased ability to get that leftover food into the hands of students. A law passed this spring creates a new pathway for school districts that want to reduce food waste and feed hungry kids throughout the week.
Senate Bill 725 — authored by state Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, became effective immediately after Gov. Greg Abbott signed the legislation in June. It allows schools to create food pantries on campus where they can store donated food as well as surplus food from the cafeteria.
Since 2011, federal law has allowed school districts to donate leftover food to nonprofits free of liability as long as they follow health and safety codes. Of the limited number of school districts taking advantage of the law, many end up donating to food banks or homeless shelters.
"That doesn't solve our problem because most nonprofits collect that food and take it elsewhere," said Rep. Diego Bernal, who authored and carried the bill in the House. "It doesn't help those hungry kids."
The San Antonio Democrat toured his district asking teachers and administrators about their biggest concerns for their students. "They were all frustrated with the volume and quality of the food that was thrown away regularly in their cafeteria. They were frustrated by their inability to give the food to those students" who didn't have food at home, he said.
SB 725 creates a loophole that allows schools to keep their leftover packaged food and produce for distribution on campus — by letting them donate the food to themselves. A school can name one of its employees as the designee of a third-party nonprofit, allowing the school to donate and then collect the leftover food.
Another part of the bill lets school districts use their campuses to distribute that food.
"If they just want to test it out and do bottled water and unopened peel-top cereal and wrapped granola bars, cool," Bernal said. "If they want to spend money and add refrigerators, that's also great. We don't dictate how they should do it." Most of the food stored will be unopened, pre-packaged beverages or nonperishable items and whole fruit and vegetables — not warm meals, in order to follow state and local health codes, he said.