State Rep. Fentrice Driskell (top row, second from the left) picked the brains of some Wharton High students to formulate an environmental bill to try to pass at the upcoming state legislative session, which begins March 2.

If a bill gets passed during this upcoming State of Florida legislative session that helps eliminate food waste and, in the process, provides the Sunshine State with environmental benefits, you might just have some Wharton High students to thank for it.

During a Zoom class on Jan. 28 moderated by District 63 State Rep. Fentrice Driskell, the Wharton students were asked to debate three potential bills they had been given, and whichever one they found to be the most preferable, Rep. Driskell would take with her to Tallahassee when the 60-day legislative session begins March 2 and work to get it passed.

“This is a new initiative for me,” Rep. Driskell said. “I have heard of other members doing this, but I wanted to put my own spin on it.”

Each of the bills debated had a strong climate change component to them, something near to Driskell’s heart — before attending Harvard University and Georgetown Law School, she was an officer in the environment club at Lake Gibson High in Lakeland. 

“We were setting out to save the world,” she told the class. “Never doubt that young people can save the world, and part of the reason we are having real conversation around climate change is because the younger generation is pushing us to do so.”

The students in the class of Mary Johnson (AP Environmental Science) and Chad Reed (AP U.S. Government) chose a version of the Rhode Island Refuse Disposal Act, which ensures that the organic-waste materials generated by educational facilities are recycled at an authorized composting facility or anaerobic digestion facility.

“There is a lot of food waste,” said Sarai Guzman, a senior, who added that since she moved to Tampa she has noticed excessive waste, especially in schools. “We need to help those who don’t get as much food.”

Zoe Craig, a junior, agreed. She said she has volunteered a lot in a local food pantry, and sees the need for food in the community. 

Sonya Patel, also a junior, also voted for the food waste bill, stressing its environmental benefits.

“It would lead to less going to the landfill, and the less landfill, the less we burn, which (means) less greenhouse gas,” she said. “There is a whole chain of reactions involved with that.”

Senior Mark Johnson agreed that the gashouse effect of less waste would provide a large benefit to society.

The other bills presented for discussion included one dealing with testing for and eliminating lead in the water of schools and child daycare centers, and another focused on an energy security and disaster resilience pilot program to create solar energy storage systems at certain facilities which could provide needed power following natural disasters.

The Lead-Safe Schools and Daycares Act also was a popular choice of the class. Kylie Lewis said she thought the transparency of the bill — requiring testing results to be made available to district leaders and parents — was great, while senior Vlada Pitner said the safety issue was important. 

“There have been a lot of problems in the district in Hillsborough County with lead being in the water,” Pitner said. “It’s a big issue and I feel like a lot of people overlook it. And, it affects the next generation, who we want to be healthy.”

Senior Jonathan Arms cast his vote for the solar energy bill, primarily because of the possibilities it could open up.

“If we could prove to the other states that solar energy is viable and can properly be used as a back up, then there is no real excuse it can’t be used as a primary source,” Arms said. “Maybe we can start using solar energy for big projects, maybe we start making, I don’t know, solar-powered cars. That would be kind of cool. I kind of like (what this bill could mean for the future).”

In a non-Covid world, Driskell says she would have liked to break off into groups for further debate. Instead, she put it to a vote, with 47 percent of the class picking the food waste bill. She called the experience a success.

“It went better than I expected,” Driskell said. “The kids were so impressive to me. They were engaged the whole time. I couldn’t have asked for it to go any better.”

Driskell said the class was the first of many she would like to do in New Tampa, and that she will approach other schools in the future. She chose Wharton for this one because of her relationship with principal Mike Rowan, whom she met in 2018 shortly after being elected for the first time. 

She will now take the bill, rework the language in it, and work on getting it sponsored. It would then go into committee and, if deemed favorable by the House committee and by a House vote, it would be sent to the Senate floor for a final yes or no vote.

Driskell joked that she will tell the Senators that there would be some angry high school students calling them if the bill doesn’t pass, telling the Wharton students to be ready to go.

“I didn’t grow up knowing elected officials,” she said. “I had no sense of how accessible government is on the local and state level. I hope this sparks curiosity in the minds of these students. Maybe it gets them engaged at this level, at an early age, and they will want to stay engaged for the rest of their lives.”

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