Guest blogger: Reducing cafeteria waste

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.

Background Information – A teacher at my son’s elementary school started a school-wide recycling program a couple years ago. When the recycling program first started, the program was limited to recycling paper in the classroom. About that same time, the school sent fliers home with students asking for parent volunteers. All that was expected of the volunteers was to make sure that their child’s teacher had a recycling bin in the classroom. I decided to volunteer because I felt a lot more could be accomplished, and I could apply my knowledge from work towards making the school more environmentally friendly. Over the past few years, another parent volunteer and I have really transformed the green club into a group that’s making some real changes, and the types of projects and activities that our green club sponsors have expanded greatly. 

Greening Our Cafeterias – The cafeteria is one of the biggest sources of waste in a school. The waste generated ranges from polystyrene trays and various forms of food packaging, to cardboard boxes and cans from the kitchen, to tons of uneaten food. I try to eat lunch at school with my son a few times a year and, since reading Mrs. Q’s blog, I have taken more of an interest in what the kids are eating. It seems to be a mixed bag as to how nutritious students’ lunches are. I see plenty of kids eating peanut butter sandwiches, carrot sticks, and other healthy foods. I also see plenty of kids eating those stupid Lunchables, Doritos, and Gatorade. Are parents that lazy pressed for time that they can’t spend 5 minutes making their kid’s lunch?

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.

2. Think of all the cardboard boxes that a kitchen generates! Some schools, like this one, don’t even bother to break them down. Our school pays about $15/day for MTWTF pickup of a 6-yard trash dumpster. That’s over $75 a week!  Most other schools in our school district have larger dumpsters, yet have a similar number of students. What a waste of money!  If schools like this one had a recycling program, think about how much their waste volume could be reduced. 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. The resulting savings would likely be enough pay for their recycling program and still have some savings left over.  I’ve been in contact with similar sized schools in Washington that do such a good job recycling and reducing waste that they require trash pick up only once a week.  Look how much money that would save!
3. Recycling needs to be convenient. Currently, we are using two trash containers with holes cut in the top to collect recyclable items and juice pouches for TerraCycle. It’s a bit crude, but it works for the most part. When I eat lunch with my son, I notice that plenty of recyclables still end up in the trash. To address this and to try and improve our recycling rate, we are in the process of building a mobile recycling station with formal signage to try and make our recycling effort more visible and, hopefully, more effective. Here’s a picture to demonstrate what it will eventually look like. The recycling station that we’re making will have two bins for mixed stream recycling (paper, plastic bottles, aluminum cans, etc) and a third bin will be for juice pouches. It was our original intent for the recycling station to be constructed of reclaimed kitchen cabinets from the local Habitat for Humanity. Unfortunately, we were not able to find any cabinets that met our size requirements. The counter top, however, is made of a sustainable material. ECO Supply is a provider of green building products here in Richmond. ECO Supply donated a 1-1/4″ thick, 48” x 60” sheet of Paper Stone counter top. PaperStone is a composite made from recycled paper and proprietary, petroleum-free phenolic resins made from raw materials like cashew nut shell liquid.

Waste Free Lunches – There are lots of enterprising companies that offer products so parents can pack a waste-free lunch for their children. Not to be a party pooper, but I see no real need for these special products. My son eats a peanut butter sandwich, some canned fruit, and some chocolate chip cookies. We just use some plain jane food storage containers and put his milk in a thermos. We include a napkin that is made from recycled paper. My son has been great remembering to not throw out his containers.

I wish more parents would use reusable containers instead of using Ziplock bags. BTW – Ziplock bags can be recycled. They are accepted (sans zipper) at facilities that accept plastic grocery bags. I can’t think of anything that a kid would normally have in his/her lunch that couldn’t go in a reusable container. Using reusable containers not only allows you to eliminate the need for disposable bags, it saves money. For example, instead of buying individual servings of applesauce, you can buy a big jar of applesauce and pour it into a reusable container.  One of my goals is to start a “Waste-free Wednesday” program at our school. The lunch staff would reward students who brought a waste-free lunch by taking their picture for publication on the club’s blog.

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.

Plastic Milk Bottles – Our school district serves milk in paperboard milk cartons. This type of milk carton cannot be recycled in our area due to their wax lining. I have been trying to get our school district to switch to plastic milk bottles (which can be recycled). The good news is that our school district bids out the milk contract with plastic bottles as an alternate. The bad news is that prices for plastic milk bottles are 8 cents more per bottle than the paperboard milk cartons. It’s too bad that our school district won’t choose to make the switch because there’s the potential to reduce the cafeteria’s waste volume by 10% or more.

Another reason to move away from paperboard milk cartons and make the switch to plastic milk bottles is that studies show that kids drink more milk if it is kept cold. Milk tastes best when it’s served between 35° and 40°F. For whatever reason, milk tastes colder in a plastic bottle vs. a paperboard carton. Children will drink more of it, and get more of the calcium and eight other essential nutrients it has to offer. The school districts that have made the switch experienced an increase in milk and lunch sales, which offset the higher cost for the plastic milk bottles. Here is a link to several “success stories” of school districts that made the switch to plastic milk bottles.
I know it’s a bit self serving by the milk industry, but this is what they have to say about flavored milks. I tend to agree that the sugar in flavored milk isn’t any worse than the sugar in the other beverages that kids bring in their lunch, and milk has many important nutrients.  I think it’s worth while serving flavored milk if the end result in kids drinking more milk instead of Gatorade and similar drinks.

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.

Day 90: chili *milestone*

Today’s menu: chili, beans, tortilla chips, fruit icee, milk

I guess I forgive the meal planners *somewhat* for offering an “icee” today because it was hot at school. The school is not “climate controlled,” so a frozen juice bar makes sense to cool off. Looking over past lunches, the last time I ate this exact lunch was February 16th, which was not exactly “icee” weather. The biggest problem I have with the icee (which contains HFCS) is that the kids only have time to eat the icee, milk and the chips, which leads to exhaustion, jumpiness, and overall hunger later.

I ate everything today including a significant chunk of the icee. You can see in the picture that it was cold. Hey, although it was super sweet, I liked it because it was a cold treat. A kid labeled this lunch “tacos,” which I don’t think it qualifies for because wouldn’t we need a tortilla (hard or soft) for it to be a taco? I’m calling it “chili” but it’s really “tex-mex” without the rice on the bottom. Strange stuff.

I have to say I was ravenous by the end of day and was rummaging around my desk drawers for anything I could find. I ended up eating a stale rice cake with peanut butter to hold me over. As I was going home I was overwhelmed by a desire for pizza delivery, but thankfully I did not give in and came home to heat up leftovers from our great weekend of food. I don’t even remember the last time we ordered pizza for delivery…maybe 18 months ago? For me that was an unusual craving.


I have eaten school lunches for the equivalent of half of a school year (the average school year is 180 days). I can’t believe I’ve made it this far. Should I be happy about this milestone? I am because I challenged myself to do something wild and here I am. It sure has been an experience. The project has been life-changing in big ways, but at school I still go along as if nothing is happening at all. Very few friends and even family know about what I’m doing online here. I think this summer I’m going to reveal myself to a few more friends and family members.

One thing I want to share with you is that while the project and my original goal stay semi-static, my job and my life are dynamic and have evolved. That means I’ve been thinking about my career in a new way. At this point I’m just in deep thought. I really enjoy thinking deeply and generating ideas. That’s how I came up with the blog! I have more great ideas simmering…it’s just a matter of execution.


Totally unrelated to the project, a very serious kid told me today:
“It was my birthday and then a fly bit me.”
It’s hard not to smile, but I tried to take in that information sympathetically. That does suck! But it was so cute too.

Guest Blogger: College cafeteria food

The food I ate before going vegan: chicken nuggets, pickles and cucumbers, squash sauteed in butter
As I prepared to go off to college I had one giant fear—the freshman fifteen. Despite what my tour guides told me I expected to be ordering out frequently because I couldn’t stomach the slop from the dining hall.
            After a week of eating two squares a day in the caf I knew I was going to have the opposite problem—an all-you-can-eat buffet of pretty tasty food all day, every day. There was a pizza bar, burgers and hotdogs, waffle irons with delicious sweet batter, and a cart overflowing with cookies, brownies and cakes. Sure, there was also a long salad bar and plenty of fruit, but those things didn’t interest me nearly as much as schmearing my brownies with peanut butter or the pizza topped with crispy buffalo chicken.
            And if I wanted something to eat when the dining hall wasn’t open (which happened quite often because it had horrible hours) my only option was the Grill. This was the fast food option at school. Double cheeseburgers, personal pizzas, paninis, milkshakes, and lots and lots of fries. Their salads were prepackaged bowls of iceberg lettuce, crispy fried chicken, and tomatoes with ranch dressing. They also had some of the most decadent brownies and cake masquerading as blueberry muffins.
        This was a popular place to grab a quick breakfast (usually a plain bagel and massive amount of cream cheese) before class or a fourth meal for most students. Without a doubt, I sampled these culinary creations once or twice (or every time I woke up hungover).
            This ritual of indulgence occurred twice a day for nearly a month. In that time I gained weight and lost energy. I was napping everyday, snacking through my morning, falling asleep in class.
            Very quickly, though, I got fed up with my clothes getting tighter every time I put them on. I got tired of being tired.
            So I cut out the junk. No more fries at every meal, massive slices of cake, or burritos the size of full-term babies. I started eating the way I had been doing for years before coming to college—healthily. And you know what?
            The weight came off. The need for a daily nap almost completely vanished. I stayed awake in class (unlike in high school). It was amazing how much of a difference my diet could make. And before long I even had enough energy to start working out again.
            Then, half way through my spring semester I made another dietary change—I went vegan. I cut out all animal (and bug) products and once again had to learn a new way to maneuver the dining hall.
This change wasn’t terribly difficult since we have a vegan station, but if I ever tried to venture away from this one safe corner, I was shot. It seemed like everything was cooked in butter, smothered in mayo, or generously sprinkled with cheese. Who puts cheese on steamed broccoli? That just seemed ridiculously to me. Like Mrs. Q, the days I could just find plain, unadorned vegetables was a glorious day.
Food I eat now: a big, beautiful, delicious and diverse salad
I make my dining hall sound horrible, I realize. In all honesty, I am luckier than most students. My dining hall uses mostly organic, local foods and practices sustainable dining (no trays, recycled napkins, real plates and silverware, and they compost all leftovers). But pork chops, regardless of the food the pigs were fed and where they come from, are still unhealthy when deep-fried and drowning in gravy.
Once the year ended, I was amazed to see that I had managed to lose a pound or two. But even better than completely avoiding the dreaded freshman fifteen was realizing the power of healthy eating. And realizing that I had the power (and knowledge) to say no to most unhealthy foods.
My name is Kara Hadley and I blog at