The school lunchroom grows green
From kindergarten to college, school cafeterias become ecofriendly by banishing trays, growing veggies, and composting waste.
(Page 3 of 3)
The program costs $750 a school year, which administrators says works out to less than $4 per meal, or roughly the cost of a Happy Meal.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
“We thought we would hear that ‘We hate this food, we want to go back to McDonald’s,’ ” says Jennifer Kotkin, ecospaces coordinator and seventh-grade science teacher.
Instead, administrators say, the kids really enjoy eating what they have grown and are piling hummus and tzatziki on their plates along with PB&J.
The cafeteria also switched from speed lines with trays to family-style dining. “If you compare a normal school cafeteria to a family-style system, the percentage of waste significantly drops,” says Ralph Walker, the architect who designed the school’s new building. “Every individual student can control [his or her] own portions. You can make closer to the exact amount of food [needed], wash less, and do less.”
The students now eat off real china, and each one is assigned a task to help set or clear the table. Food waste goes either to a composter in the kitchen, which turns it into fertilizer for the garden, or to bins in the classrooms, where worms happily munch on leavings.
These days, “we use paper napkins that are [made from] recycled material. Other than that, we have no waste,” says Frank Mentesana, ecospaces facilitator.
Mr. Brito estimates that trash has been reduced by up to 90 percent.
“We even recycle the food that’s left over,” adds Ms. Kotkin. “We have a charity across the street ... and we bring them our leftover food to feed the homeless.”
For public schools, practical considerations weigh equally with idealistic ones. It costs about $1,500 a year for Emerson Elementary in Riverside, Calif., to run the school’s portion of a two-acre community garden. Principal John McCombs pays for the costs out of the lettuce he sells the district for 50 cents a head.
He has a little tougher time maximizing profits from the school’s 1,000 strawberry plants, because his pint-sized pickers enjoy sampling the wares. “It’s a fun problem to have,” he says. “One good thing, [the farming program] helps the students reduce waste and not pile their plate full of food. They know how much work it took to grow the food, know how much water it takes.”
Pioneers of the farm-to-school movement, such as Rodney Taylor, say that such programs have proven economical as well as environmentally viable. In Santa Monica, Calif., where he instituted school composting and recycling programs along with salad bars heaped with locally grown produce, the cost of the meals went from 70 cents to 58 cents after three years, thanks to, among other things, a big reduction in garbage costs.
It’s all a matter of introducing this way of eating while kids are young, says Mr. Taylor, now the director of nutrition services for the Riverside Unified School District, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles. “If we get them early and teach them, we’ve got a chance.”