About Me – My name is Angry Beaver, and I live in the Richmond, Virginia area. I am a mechanical engineer for an architectural/engineering firm and am also a LEED accredited professional. I design energy efficient heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems for all sorts of building types including K-12 schools, high education facilities, detention facilities, courthouses, and office buildings. I was always “pro-environment”, but my job has shown me how much impact a single person can have on making this world a better place.
But what kills me the most is how much food simply gets thrown out. I’m sure the main reason why food gets thrown out is because the kids are too busy kibitzing with each other. I wish that kids would bring their uneaten food home, especially if it is unopened, so that parents could make changes to their kid’s lunch. Wasted food is a tragedy on so many levels. To demonstrate the amount of uneaten food that a school cafeteria generates, check out this video that a local middle school student put together (make sure you have the volume turned up).
As you can see, a lot of good food gets thrown in the garbage, and a lot of “regular” trash gets thrown in the garbage as well. What are some ways that we can reduce the amount of trash being generated in our cafeterias?
Recycling – Well, DUH! School cafeterias generate a lot of trash. Fortunately, a good portion of it can be recycled, especially when you consider what the kitchen generates. A lot of the items that students bring in their lunches can be recycled as well.
1. As I mentioned above, our school has participated in a recycling program over the last few years to reduce the amount of trash that goes into our landfills. We participate in a single-stream recycling program and recycle plastic bottles, cans, glass, paper, and cardboard. Our PTA generously pays $780/year for weekly recycling pickup as this service is not provided by our county or the school district. Our 4-yard recycling dumpster is typically busting at the seams every Friday when it gets emptied.
Offering Food vs. Serving Food – Hot lunches at some schools are just like an assembly line with cafeteria works plopping food on the trays and handing it to the students. This is done to get the kids through the line as quickly as possible. It’s quite understandable, the school’s desire to get the kids through the line as quickly as possible. However, a lot of uneaten food gets thrown in the garbage as a result. There’s no sense in serving food if the student has no intention of eating it. It takes a little longer to offer food, but a lot less of it goes to waste. By offering food, schools can get a more accurate idea of how much food they need to order too, saving money. Lunches in our school district are comprised of five components – meat/meat alternative, bread, milk, and two choices of fruits and/or vegetables. Students are required to take at least three of the five items offered. I think that this offers a good balance of offering vs. serving. I believe that kids will be more likely to eat their lunch if they play more of a role in making a selection.
Tap and Stack – Let’s face it. Many schools don’t have the money to use reusable trays and therefore are forced to use polystyrene trays. Our school (approximately 750 students) generates about 15 bags of garbage every day and, by volume, is probably the school’s largest source of waste. If students tapped the food off of their trays and neatly stacked the trays prior to dumping them in the trash, this would greatly reduce the volume of trash generated. Some schools have reduced their cafeteria’s waste volume by almost 50%. It’s possible that the waste volume can be reduced to the point that the school can reduce their dumpster size and/or pickup frequency, saving money. Here is a great video describing how the process works.
It is a goal of mine to start a Tap and Stack program at our school for the coming school year.
Food Scraps for Pigs – I’ve read some news articles about schools that save their food scraps and local pig farms pick up the scraps to feed their pigs. Regulations for this type of program vary state to state, and pig farms typically need to be licensed to participate in such a program. There are also state and federal regulations that require them to cook the food scraps to a specific temperature prior to feeding the scraps to the pigs.
Here is a news article about a school district in Minnesota that participates in a Food Scraps for Pigs program. They have 13 schools ranging in size from about 350 to 2,000 students that are recycling food waste. Each school recycles between 150 lbs and 300 lbs of food and drink waste per day. Elementary schools typically produce much more waste per student than the junior high or high schools. Barthold’s is the company that runs the program, and they provide 32 gallon Brute containers (with wheels) and collect the containers at a cost of around $4.00/barrel. They collect food waste every other day, empty the barrels directly into the tank on their truck, wash out the barrel, place a liner in the barrel, and return the clean, empty barrel to the school. Here’s some more information about the program.
Students are responsible for making sure only food and drink waste goes into the barrel. The schools have an assembly for the students the week before they start the program, and they have volunteers oversee the sorting during the first week. At first, some of the younger students would dump their entire lunch into the trash because “they wanted to feed the pigs”. This school district noted that the students catch on quickly about what goes into the barrel. To make the process more efficient, the school noted that it is important for the students to have a surface on which to place their trays. Here’s a neat video about the Food Scraps for Pigs program.
I looked into stating up such a program at our school (and even found a local pig farmer who was interested in participating), but I learned that Virginia does not allow food scraps to be fed to pigs due to the fear of spreading illnesses to the pigs. Check with your state’s Department of Agriculture if you’re interested in starting a similar program at your school.
Composting – If you search the internet, you can find numerous schools that compost their food scraps on-site. Unfortunately, on-site composting is simply not in most school districts’ budgets. Furthermore, it’s not practical to expect the compost bins to be one more task for the custodian. And you’d be fooling yourself if you believe that teacher and/or parent volunteers could maintain a composting facility. I honestly think that it’s more practical to have a compost hauling service pick up the food scraps. I’m hoping that our county will fund a recycling program for our schools, and our PTA can then spend the money previously spent on the recycling program to pay for a composting service.
Conclusion – I think with a little effort and cooperation for school administrators, parents, and students, that our schools could approach being “zero-waste”. I believe that for any grassroots type effort that it really needs someone who is passionate and who is a strong advocate for the cause. Be the change you want to see in the world.
Post Script – Random Rants and Ramblings
- It’s hard to make changes. Sometimes it feels like “You can’t fight City Hall”. People don’t like being told how to do their jobs. “I’m the principal of the school. You worry about raising your kid, and I’ll take care of running the school.” When I want to start a new recycling activity at my school, I don’t approach by pointing out how the recycling program will “save the Earth”. I demonstrate how the kids learn about science and point out how it ties into their curriculum. And especially when dealing with the school district and county administrators, I point out how these activities can save them money. It’s always all about the money. I try to keep things positive. I don’t try and point out what’s wrong with everything. I try and find my own solution and present an alternative on how to do things better and to present it in such a way that they’d be crazy not to. We need to take a similar approach when trying to make changes to our school lunch programs.
- All of the food at Mrs. Q’s school is wrapped in plastic and is thrown in the garbage when done with. It’s the epitome of a disposable society. I think that if we started serving real food that isn’t wrapped in plastic, students will learn that food is a valuable resource, that it’s important what we’re eating. And I believe that this has many parallels to how we treat our environment. We buy too much crap that is simply thrown out at the end of the day. No one cares how much pollution was created when the item was produced. No one cares what harm it causes the environment after it’s been thrown away. We need to change our thinking people!
- Any grassroots cause needs a champion in order to be successful. Any change that’s worth while takes a long time to achieve. Mrs. Q, Michelle Obama, and others have gotten the ball rolling. It’s up to every one of us to help push that ball up that hill. So keep reading the blog and leave comments. It’s all good. But for God’s sake, call up your school district and demand healthier lunches. Write an e-mail to your congressperson demanding more funding and more meaningful regulations. Mrs. Q and others are doing a great job bringing attention to the cause, but it’s up to US to catch that ball and run it in for a touchdown. Don’t just sit on the sidelines. We need every one’s help and that means YOU.