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 Beginning this school year, District 65 cafeterias no longer serve student food on Styrofoam trays. Efforts pushed by the District’s volunteer Green Teams have replaced the trays with compostable ones, drastically reducing the impact on local landfills. The new pilot project diverts about 2,800 styrofoam trays from landfills each day, or a total of 12,000 per week district-wide, according to Green Team Founder Becky Brodsky who along with her lineup of volunteers, worked with District 65 to make the initiative a district-wide effort. 

 “It was a bit of a process at the beginning getting lunch supervisors, custodians, principals and students all on the same page,” said Ms. Brodsky. “But we figured out a system to move the trays with other food items already being transported. Kate Mason-Schultz deserves a lot of credit for championing the effort.” 

“The new trays are working out well. They are the exact size and shape as our old foam trays, so the students barely noticed a difference,” said Ms. Mason-Schultz, District 65 Nutrition Services Coordinator who worked closely with Ms. Brodsky and other volunteers to get the initiative off the ground. “Getting students to stack them so that we can more easily get them composted has been a change for some schools, but some were already doing this to minimize the volume of the trays. Lunchroom supervisors and staff have been our biggest assets in helping students get in the new habit.”

How It Works

The Green Teams and District staff worked together to devise the new process. They taught kids to “shake and stack” their trays, sorting the uneaten food, recyclables and trash into different containers, then stack the trays for composting. At the end of each day the trays are then placed in large recyclable bags and are picked up by District staff when they return to the schools to gather the large boxes used to deliver food. The trays are stored in a district warehouse and are picked up weekly by Collective Resource, an Evanston-based commercial composter.

“I believe that the students and staff are beginning to understand and also see the importance of our efforts,” said Ms. Mason-Schultz. “I love visiting the schools and having students ask about the trays. Their questions are very thoughtful and lead to great conversations.”

Cost

The new trays have increased the cost of the lunch program “a bit” said Ms. Mason-Schultz, but buying the trays through a purchasing cooperative has kept the price “reasonable.”   

The District made a commitment to invest in composting the trays because it is important to divert from landfills, said Ms. Brodsky, but the process may generate savings in the future. The District pays
for landfill pick-ups but not the recycling. If composting and other waste reduction programs can decrease the amount of trash, it may be possible to reduce landfill pickups and save money she said.   

Greening of the Lunch Rooms

On top of composting trays, five District 65 schools now also compost all food.  Three more will begin to do so next year.  Ultimately the Green Teams would like to see all schools composting food.

“We are working on an individual basis with schools to find what works for them. It’s not a cookie cutter process; all schools have different needs,” said Ms. Brodsky. Washington School, for example, has two cafeterias to manage. Some schools have a multipurpose “gymateria” so clean up must be fast.

Lunch rooms are also reducing waste by eliminating excess packaging. Utensils had been packaged in sets but now students can take a fork, spoon and napkin individually out of a dispenser. The cold lunch option is now served less often and with fewer wrappers.

Moving Forward

“We are happy with this progress but not satisfied. There is always more to do,”
 said Ms. Brodsky. She and her Green Team leaders are trying to push the District to make a greater commitment to going green. They are asking the District for more “overt support” by making recy-
cling mandatory at all schools, by hiring
a District Sustainability Coordinator and by adding sustainability to the Districts five-year strategic plan.

“Sustainability needs to be more of a priority. I see this as an equity issue. It affects our kids’ future. This is not an issue that can be pushed off, it is something that has to be addressed now.”