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The school lunchroom grows green

From kindergarten to college, school cafeterias become ecofriendly by banishing trays, growing veggies, and composting waste.

By Yvonne ZippCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 29, 2009

Students at St. Philip’s Academy in Newark, N.J. – Andrew Reaodamacela (center), Cayla Harris (left), and Alazeera Ocasio (right) – enjoy salad for lunch in the school cafeteria.

Photos by Stephanie Keith/Special to The Christian Science Monitor


At a private school in Newark, N.J., students dine daily on ingredients grown on the building’s roof. In Baltimore, city schools have their own 33-acre organic farm, while in Riverside, Calif., elementary school students trundle wheelbarrows of lettuce and buckets of strawberries from a community garden behind the playground directly to their own salad bar.

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Across the United States, efforts to make school lunches more environmentally friendly have paired with the local food movement, as educators try to reconnect children with the growing season. School lunchrooms are also getting revamped to cut water and energy use and lessen food waste.

Although not every college can get all its milk, yogurt, and sour cream from its own herd of cows (as does the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), or cage-free eggs from its own hens (as does Vermont’s Green Mountain College), dozens of universities are doing away with that rectangular symbol of the cafeteria: the tray. It’s a simple change, but one that school administrators say can dramatically reduce waste.

For example, the University of Illinois studied the environmental impact of eliminating trays in a dining hall that served an average of 1,300 students per day. “Not having trays saves 516 gallons of water a day – that’s 110,940 gallons in an academic year,” says Kristen Kirsten Ruby, assistant director of housing for marketing.

In addition to the water saved, the dining hall also used 473 pounds less dishwashing detergent that year. Even more interesting, Ms. Ruby adds: “We also noticed a 40 percent reduction in the amount of food waste.” Because students couldn’t carry as much, she explains, they didn’t take more than they could eat.

ARAMARK, a food-service provider for some 600 institutions of higher education, conducted a survey of 25 schools that found that trayless dining reduced waste by an average of 25 to 30 percent. When it asked 92,000 students at 300 colleges about getting rid of trays in cafeterias and dining halls, 75 percent said they were in favor of the change.

But the range of initiatives is as varied as the institutions. “We’re at the pioneering stage,” says David Krueger, codirector of the sustainability program at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. “All of these bottom-up local initiatives [on college campuses] mimic the larger sustainability movement. It’s a carbon copy of trends across the spectrum.”