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.
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42 thoughts on “Guest blogger: Reducing cafeteria waste

  1. Those plastic milk bottles may contain cancer-causing bpa. Numbers 3 or 7 in the recycling symbol contain bpa. You should check before switching. Children's health is more important than recycling, even though recycling is very important.

  2. I am sorry… This may be a great post, but once I got to lazy and it crossed out I was done. It has been a sad thing for me to watch the ideas on this blog become progressively judgemental. From Mrs. Q to the guest posters, the perspective has become narrow. While everyone wants change, name calling and judging do not help the solution

  3. Hi!

    I just wanted to say that this was an excellent post. I commented a few weeks ago about how baffled and disappointed I was by all the individual serving containers that appear in Mrs. Q's posts and I was surprised that nobody else seemed nearly as concerned.

    I am curious as to what your reasoning is behind your statement that most schools don't have the money to use reusable trays. I grew up in a school district that had those old-fashioned green plastic divided trays (Like these: We "tapped and stacked" them and they were quickly slipped into fingered dishwasher trays that went into a commercial dishwasher. One "lunch lady" ran the dishwasher for 15 minutes or so and the trays were ready for the next lunch group.

    Even with the startup cost of the trays and dishwasher and the daily water and electricity consumption, I can't see how polystyrene trays for 180 days a year could possibly be cheaper than reusable plastic ones. Has plastic gotten so expensive and polystyrene so cheap that that's the case?

    I'd be very curious to see a side-by-side comparison of the costs.

  4. This was such an informative post –thanks for taking the time to give us all that information. I think it's especially interesting to see that kids bringing lunches from home seem to be generating as much trash as those little plastic-encased lunches that Mrs. Q has to eat. I know more and more parents at my daughter's school (which is a small private school) are going for waste-free lunches. Also, kids who bring their lunches from home aren't allowed to throw any food away –it has to come back home with them. That has helped me see just what my daughter is eating or not eating.

    Our school also has a yearly field trip to a nature preserve and on that day each student is asked to pack a lunch with the least waste possible. At the end of lunch, each student has to put any waste that can't be recycled into a bucket and then they weigh the trash. I think it's a good educational experience, for both the kids and their parents.

    Some of the things you advocate (like offering vs. serving) just beg for longer lunch periods, which would benefit the kids in other ways too.

  5. I'm sorry, but I really disagree with your message here. First of all you say that you "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 then you say that your son eats "a peanut butter sandwich, some canned fruit, and some chocolate chip cookies". How is that much better? Unless you are using wheat bread and natural peanut butter, then you're child is getting sugar in the pb sandwich. Then, he has CANNED fruit, which means it was being soaked in sugary fruit-flavored syrup usually. And do I even need to talk about the cookies?

    You may take 5 minutes to make your son's lunch, but until you start packing some better stuff in their for him, I am not sure you can really judge what other parents are doing…

  6. Justin – The thing that most people assume about using reusable trays is that staffing levels would remain the same. For our school (and I assume for many other schools), it would be necessary to hire an additional worker. Every school's situation might be a little different and reusable trays might be an affordable option for them.

    1. Hello. My high school is trying to implement similar energy saving and recycling ideas for school lunches. Maybe you could help, as a reliable and experienced source, get us on the right track. Thanks
      TJ Hastings. AZ

  7. Chanel – My post is focused on reducing waste and is not intended to portray the lunch that I feed my son as the "end all be all" of nutrition. His sandwich is made with wheat bread and natural peanut butter (no hydrogenated oils). I choose fruit that is served in its own juices. Definately not heavy syrup. Even with the cookies, I am confident that the lunch that my son eats is more nutritious than many of the lunches that other kids are eating. Could his kunch be healthier? Sure. But, again, that's not the focus of this post. The focus is on making a lunch with little to no waste.

  8. "Unless you are using wheat bread and natural peanut butter, then you're child is getting sugar in the pb sandwich."

    Chanel, "natural" peanut butter and "whole grains" are still sugar. Before you point out the mote in your neighbor's eye, remove the beam from thine own! Of course there are many other good reasons to avoid grains and legumes, regardless.

  9. I think you should be careful about calling parents who send their kids to school with junk food lazy. My mom teaches at a very low income school. Many of her kids live in single parent households where the mom or dad spend most of their time working just to make ends meet. Junk food is notoriously cheap and the school food isn't much better. My dad died when I was 11 and I'm very lucky that my mom was able to support my brother and me and keep us healthy. Not everyone is so fortunate.

  10. Your post makes me want to go back to my elementary school and see if they still have a trash can for food waste. We were told that we fed pigs on a farm, although my 7-year-old self couldn't confirm that. We did sort food waste and paper/plastic trash into two trash cans, and then we turned in the reusable plates, trays, and silverware at a dishwashing window. I would be dismayed if my school, who got it right back in the 1980s, had changed to the disposable approach that I see so much of.

  11. In the spirit of recycling and reducing food waste, my Mom told me about an elementary school where she volunteers in WA state. In the lunchroom they have a table in the middle and kids that aren't going to eat something from their lunch put it on the table. Kids who want it are free to come get whatever they like. The item has to be in it's original packaging or, in the case of apples and oranges, undamaged or in the wrapped wedges that the lunch preparers serve.
    There are an awful lot of low income kids in that school so this is a nice way for them to be able to get a decent lunch while reducing the amount of perfectly good food that goes to waste.

  12. What a fantastic and informative post! One of my daughters is on the recycling committee at her middle school and it has helped her to become SO aware (and intolerant!)of all the waste and bad habits her peers and this country is stuck in. If I let the water run in the kitchen too long I get yelled at lol. The more we can involve the kids in learning about and participating in waste-free activites, the better for all of us in the long run. Bravo for this terrific article 🙂

  13. As someone who is into green living and small carbon footprints, I was excited to see this post. I found the video really interesting.

    However, you lost me when you said you wanted to switch to plastic milk bottles. While plastic can be recycled, and wax-covered cardboard cannot, recycling is not the only important factor. Also consider the environmental footprint of creating the packaging, what it is made out of (paper vs. oil), and the rate at which it will decay in a landfill if not recycled.

    By those measurements, the cardboard milk containers are a much better choice.

    And I have to disagree on flavored milk. My kids drink plain milk or water. I guarantee your flavored milk doesn't have the sugar of what my kids are drinking. If they want juice, they can have it, but it's a rare treat, not what they are offered every day. Do you really want your child to drink a beverage with the same sugar as soda every day, just to get some protein and Vit D? Aren't there better ways to get protein and vitamins than consuming high sugar beverages?

  14. I thought most of the post was very interesting. I did have a strong reaction to the suggestion that reusable containers are the way to go, however. I had some serious negative flashbacks to school, which was many years ago. My parents almost always made my lunch and sometimes I had reusable containers. However starting in junior high and continuing through high school they were horrible and I refused to take them. The problem was there was never enough time to take them back to my locker after lunch. That's just how it was, there was barely enough time to squeeze in a bathroom trip if necessary and rush to the next class. And I already had enough things people made fun of me for, carrying containers after lunch was just unthinkable.

  15. My son's school has what they call a boomerang lunch program. Everything the child brings for lunch comes home: packaging, uneaten food, utensils, etc. The school does not have a cafeteria so all children bring packed lunches. It's a simple program that I will admit I didn't like at first. A half eaten banana after spending the day in a lunch bag in my son's backpack is not a pleasant thing. But I have since come around.

    1. The school reduces waste disposal cost.
    2. We tend to utilize reusable containers since everything is coming home anyway.
    3. We can see what our child eats (and doesn't eat) when at school. We have reduced further waste by ensuring we are supplying food he prefers in quantities that are appropriate.

  16. Parents can spend an extra three minutes putting together a simple yet healthy lunch. "Lazy" might be a bit terse, but I stand by my comment. Even a single parent working two jobs can spare five minutes to pack a nutritious lunch.

  17. Liz – I disagree that the environmental footprint of paper is better than that of plastic. Just google a comparison between paper vs. plastic grocery bags.

    Sure there are better ways to get nutrients. My point is that flavored milks provide additional nutrients that sugary drinks don't.

  18. Liz – Also regarding the landfill. It's going to take hundreds of years for a paperboard milk carton to degrade in most landfills due to the lack of oxygen. The University of Arizona did a great study on the decomposition of various items in landfills a few years ago. Google it and check it out.

  19. I agree with those who said they were turned off by the "lazy" comment. I also pretty much stopped reading at that point.

    The expression "you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar" seems to be forgotten a lot in the natural food world. Shaming people rarely works and usually just turns people off.

  20. Angry Beaver: Yes, I realize that, but when you make an argument, it is hard to get past certain parts of it to get to the real meat. I couldn't really focus on the rest, because I was in such awe of you calling parents lazy for giving their children unhealthy food when you then described what you were doing as so much better.

    Frogfarm: Yes, I am aware of that. However, wouldn't you say that eating natural peanut butter with only one ingredient (PEANUTS), is better than eating something sweetened with molasses and sugar? Or worse, HFCS?

  21. Ashley Schoolar – Where did I sarcastically judge anyone for eating school food? I also think that it's not accurate to assume that only "poor" people are the ones packing junk for their kid's lunch. There are plenty of "afluent" people that pack junk for their kids too.

  22. Chanel – I don't think that parents who give their kids unhealthy lunches are lazy. I think that parents who claim that they do not have enough time to make their kid's lunch (if they so choose to make a lunch – healthy or not) are making a lame excuse.

    To try and turn this more positive and not focusing on the "lazy" comment, I would recommend that parents use packing their kid's lunch as a learning experience and as "quality time" with their kid. Parents can involve their kids in choosing what the kid eats as well as making it.

  23. My bad indeed – i meant the sarcasm in the lazy comment about people not packing lunches. Again, some folks don't have time or money to pack a lunch hence the reason the kids eat the school lunch. I applaud your passion for 99% of your post, it was really great. But, you should really be careful as you got some bad comments about the lazy comment. I agree that having kids taking part in packing their lunch is a great way to get them to actually eat what is in it.

  24. This may only work in small schools, but at my son's school (rural VT, 140 students) they have a milk dispenser and students are served half glasses of milk in plastic tumblers that get washed in the dishwasher, same as the reusable trays. Seconds are available, but because of the serving size, there is very little milk wasted.

  25. Chanel – The dose makes the poison, and everyone gets to go to hell in their own handbasket. "Better"? Certainly – but tolerated is not optimal. For my particular hierarchy of values, grains and legumes have more than enough bad in them to outweigh any good. Soaking, sprouting and fermenting may reduce the amount of poison, but I'd rather just not eat poison in the first place.

    As far as the risk from BPA in plastics, I concur with whoever said, "I think people worry too much about BPA and not enough about grains, sugars and vegetable oils." Not to say it's harmless, just a question of priorities. Granted, I eat less out of cans than most people (hardly ever now).

  26. Hi Angry Beaver. The environmental impact of paper vs. plastic grocery bags is quite clear – BOTH are bad for the environment. That's why I use reuseable bags when I grocery shop.

    There's not much research on plastic milk bottles vs. cardboard milk bottles (ultimately, glass is best), but from what I saw when I googled (as you suggested), BOTH are also bad for the environment. While people are encouraged to go with the product that can be recycled, I know that most recycling centers are not currently recycling plastics of this type because there is no profit in doing so. They're collecting them…and putting them in the landfills. Unlike plastic bags vs. paper bags, in the plastic vs. paper argument for milk containers, it's the Tetra Pack containers that take up less space in landfills.

    I often see people argue that they feel good about their decision to drink bottled water because they always recycle their bottles. Unfortunately, this isn't always the best choice. The better choice is not to use a bottle at all. And — just because you deposit a bottle into a recycling container doesn't mean that bottle is recycled.

    Interesting discussion – thanks for starting it.

  27. I just found Mrs. Q's blog, and I must say I was as horrified by the plastic containers as I was by the yucky-looking food.
    I hadn't realized how unusual my kids' school it. Their lunch is served on washable plastic trays and eaten with metal knives, forks, and spoons (no sporks!) There is a choice of fresh fruit every day. Our milk comes in cardboard, but we can recycle waxed cartons in our community (near Chicago) and the juice boxes and fruit cups get recycled as well. There is a big bucket next to the recycling bin for kids to dump any leftover drink.
    As of this year, our gardening committee has also started a compost heap and leftover food goes into it's own bucket.
    Parent volunteers serve lunch every day, and we ask the kids how much food they want. Only about 10% of kids want vegetables, but it seems like everyone takes fruit. Dessert is served only on Fridays. Even the plastic baggies from the cookies get recycled.
    I have only been at this school for two years, so I don't know how difficult it was to get this system going, but at this point it goes very smoothly.

  28. I like the idea of offering food to students, but I know that for free/reduced lunch, they are required to have all the nutritional requirements.

  29. I love the "Boomerang Lunch" idea another commenter mentioned! Fantastic!!
    My kids are going to a brand-new school this fall and the school is already working on making it a "Green School" from day one. Ah, my heart is pitter-pattering with delight at the thought of it!! I'll be bringing up the Boomerang idea at our next PTO meeting! 🙂

  30. Liz – I agree that (as far as grocery bags go) that both paper and plastic are bad. I use reusable grocery bags myself. In fact, I designed the logo at the beginning of this post as part of some custom reusable grocery bags sold by our green club. But you made the claim that paperboard milk cartons were better for the environment than plastic milk bottles. I don't have information comparing the two either but I am extrapolating that if plastic grocery bags are better than paper bags that the same must be true for milk cartons.

  31. The link for the milk in plastic containers is a Dairy marketing program that pushes flavored milks. The Dairy associations set schools up with special trash cans, posters etc…

    Our Director of food services even made a video for the Dairy association in our area. The video was taken down when parents found it on the Internet.

    Milk allergies are very real and for kids that can't drink milk the Dairy Association has no sympathy. They want milk and nothing else in the lunch rooms.
    So our student had nothing to drink for lunch when he bought the school lunch because he couldn't drink milk and there was no alternative.

  32. Angry Beaver-
    So glad you are using reusable grocery bags as well!
    The articles I found that claim plastic grocery bags are better for the environment than paper bags base that claim on the fact that the plastic bags take up more space in landfills because they compress down smaller. On that basis, the cardboard milk containers would likely be better than the plastic ones. I don't think you can conclusively suggest the plastic milk containers are more environmentally friendly without more research. And clearly, I must correct myself, because it's certainly not conclusive that the cardboard ones are better either.

  33. Please, please do not encourage school districts to use plastic milk containers! The creation of plastic uses alot of petrol. Additionally, plastic NEVER degrades, it just gets smaller – and most of the time is not recycled (because it's more expensive); so the small plastic pieces end up in the ocean.

    Has anyone ever tried composting the milk containers? Would that work with the wax coating?

    – Nicole, Virginia

  34. This was mentioned briefly above, but I just want the poster to know that there are very specific (some may say asinine) USDA requirements for "Offer vs. Serve" in order to receive reimbursement under the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program. If a student does not take a specified minimum number of meal components (and the full serving at that), then the district does not get to claim that as a full meal, and does not get reimbursement for that food.

    Food service is barely self-supporting as it is, so they would probably rather see free food go to waste than pay for less food to be eaten, as backward as that sounds. That's an unfortunate by-product of over-regulation, well-meaning as it may be. This is actually better than it was previously, when students had to take everything.

    Look up "USDA Offer vs. Serve" if you want to plow through the manual. Here's a synopsis: Schools must implement this approach at the high school level, and may do so at the middle and elementary as well. For time reasons at the lower levels I can see why schools might not. For lunch under the "Food-Based Menu Planning Approach (Traditional or Enhanced)," there must be 5 components: 1 meat/alternate, 1 grain/bread, 1 milk, and 2 fruit/veg. A high school student may refuse up to 2 of the 5 components. If the school chooses to implement OVS at the lower levels, they can allow students to refuse either 1 or 2 components.

    If the district uses the "Nutrient Standard Menu Planning" approach, OVS is entirely different. For lunch, schools must include at least an entree, a side dish, and milk every day, and the weekly average must meet certain specified nutrient standards. Computer programs are used to figure this out. For OVS, students must take at least 2 of the 3 items, and one must be the entree, in the designated portion sizes, in order to count for reimbursement. Again, OVS must be implemented in High School, and may be used in middle and elementary.

    Oh, and there are separate rules for breakfast.

    Otherwise, I agree with a lot of the points made, with the exception of plastic milk bottles. Sorry, just can't get behind using plastic even if it is recycled.

    I also saw somewhere else a rule some schools have whereby students who bring lunch are not allowed to use the trash cans at school. Carry-in, carry-out. Sounds a bit harsh at first, but think about it. A lot of campgrounds are like that. Why should the schools be paying to throw away stuff kids bring in from home? Also, this way parents know how much their kids are eating/not eating. Maybe parents will pack lunch differently with less waste.

  35. Nicole, VA – Do you have any information to back up your claims? The study I posted shows that it takes more energy to produce paperboard cartons than plastic bottles. It takes a lot of energy and water to make paper. In many cases, this energy comes from a nasty coal fired power plant. Yes, plastic has its flaws, but don't pretend that paper based products don't have their own flaws.

    I'm not sure if milk cartons can be composted. Most schools do not have the ability to compost. Recycling facilities are much more widely available. Therefore, I stand by my assertion that plastic milk bottles are the way to go.

  36. I didn’t read through all the comments, so forgive me if this has already been addressed. Milk cartons are not only compostable, if you have a school organics program, but the are recyclable. Plastic bottles is not the way to go, even if they are recycled. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to recycle a plastic bottle- less so to recycle a milk carton. Check with your county environmental service to find out more.

  37. I’m not a fan of the boomerang lunch program – for families like mine who already put sandwiches, snacks, and water in reusable containers, it’s annoying to not be able to send the odd yogurt container or banana with its peel on because the lunch bag comes back covered in food slime.

    What really burns me though, is the fact that parents are being directed to send a ziploc bag for wet food waste, which means that the parents who are likely to send a lot of disposable lunch stuff now have it come home in a disposable ziploc, which of course goes right into the garbage. This displaces the original waste from school to home, plus creates more! Even decanting yogurt into another, reusable container means that I’m now using extra soap, water, and energy to wash another container unnecessarily.

    These are hardly “green” programs from my family’s perspective!

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