VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Virginia Beach high school students in the Environmental Studies Program at the Brock Center are already shaping legislation.

Just this last year, these students have helped get two bills passed helping put more food on the plates of hungry Virginians.

Each bill works to decrease food insecurity by improving the way food donations are accepted. Natalia de los Rios is a senior at Princess Anne High School and also the Site Director of Food Rescue US – Virginia Beach.

It was during her experience as site director that de los Rios realized a common flaw in why many businesses don’t donate left over food ingredients.

“I was seeing, among all of them, a lack of clarity around some of the language,” said de los Rios in reference to food donation liability laws. “They would hold their products up until the last date because they want to try and sell it. At hat point, they’re like ‘Well I guess I can’t donate them, more I gotta throw it away’.”

De los Rios said it was leading to a lot of potential donations being thrown out because restaurants wouldn’t want to be held liable if a “best by” date was too close to the donation date.

“They couldn’t really donate without knowing if they might be open to liability, they could get sued. Obviously, they don’t want to get sued so they wouldn’t donate,” she said.

After she and her classmates did their own research, they realized there was no legal language they could point to that would appease those business owners. Fellow Princess Anne seniors Ure Emejuru and Cayden Braswell joined de los Rios along with Kempsville High School senior Matt Stanley in the effort.

That’s when they looked to create the legal protection for business owners themselves.

“We formulated a 1-pager and we like sent that out to pretty much every legislator. We heard back like maybe from like only like a handful of them,” the high school senior said. “We actually got three offers so it was kind of cool to see like they all came in once and they were also bipartisan. It kind of shows that food insecurity food waste is a non-partisan issue.”

The high school seniors said tackling food at a legislative level was intimidating, but that it was a learning experience they’ll never forget. Those students tell 10 On Your Side that a lot of what they’ve accomplished was moved forward with the help the VBCPS Environmental Studies Program at the Brock Center.

“What the hardest part was…. was testifying before the committee and the subcommittee,” explained de los Rios. “Because you see this panel of legislators staring back at you and all these other lobbyists and people behind you. You just want to make sure that your point is comes across.”

Even when they felt like they may have bitten off more than they could chew, these Virginia Beach seniors kept pushing. They want others their age to do the same.

“I think just knowing that your personal experience makes you qualified to share your voice like in any field. No matter how professional it seems or how much of a difference you see between you and the people writing the laws,” said de los Rios.

Natalia de los Rios has been accepted into multiple colleges and universities as of March 2023. She is undecided among offers from Cornell University, University of California Los Angeles, Duke University and the University of Virginia.

Ure Emejuru is attending American University in the Fall of 2023 studying Communication, Legal Institutions, Economics, and Government (CLEG).

Cayden Braswell will be attending George Washington University in the Fall of 2023 for Environmental Studies with a minor in International Affairs.

Matt Stanley is undecided, but has been accepted into multiple colleges including Virginia Tech and the University of Vermont.

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