School Lunch Programs Make a Difference!

Styrofoam trays, stinky milk cartons and picky eaters are just a few of the special challenges of tackling waste in cafeterias.

In our region, principals, teachers, parents, PTA’s, Master Recyclers and even students organize green teams, monitor cans, create durable party kits, sell sustainable products for fundraisers and even rinse out milk cartons. These projects are conserving natural resources in the tons.

Hayhurst Elementary School in Southwest Portland earns Oregon Green School Certification.

Imagine the impact projects can have on a district level! Here are four such projects that have had some big wins in our regional districts.

Styrofoam in Portland Public Schools

In 2010, all school lunches in Portland Public Schools (PPS) were delivered on Styrofoam trays. The David Douglas and Parkrose Districts in Portland had not done away with their dishwashers and continued to use durable trays, but school by school PPS had moved to disposables because of what they thought at the time was a cost savings.

It turns out that trays must be bought over and over again and they pile up in the garbage so the schools were actually spending more money. A group of parents (many of whom were Master Recyclers) in eight different schools in Portland who were involved with the Eco-School Networks decided that they wanted to help do away with this practice. They learned that Nutrition Services was receptive to budgeting money for labor to wash the trays, but facilities did not have the initial resources to pay for the dishwashing machines and trays. The Eco-School Networks’ parents appealed to the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability which identified one time funds to pay for trays. It took several more years for the procurement of dishwashers and the implementation process, but by 2014 almost all elementary schools were using durable trays.

Hillsboro School District Milk Cartons

Kids can participate in separating milk cartons, food scraps, recycling and garbage.

Just about every kid gets milk with their lunch. Recycling those milk cartons is a big problem because the milk cartons have to be rinsed. Milk left in the cartons not only makes a big stink, but it turns out that the bacteria that grows there likes to eat paper too. The paper fibers end up getting eaten before it can be recycled.

The Hillsboro School District (HSD) partnered with the Washington County Solid Waste & Recycling program to establish milk carton recycling at 33 of the district’s 35 schools, and the impacts are impressive. The HSD purchases upwards of three million milk cartons per year, weighing in at nearly 48 tons of material. Eliminating milk cartons from the garbage allowed HSD to decrease service pick-ups for a garbage cost savings of about $85,000 per year.

Food Donation

State and federal policy changes inspired the Portland Public Schools and Hillsboro School District to start a food donation policy.

First, the Oregon Department of Education School Food Safety Inspection Requirements originally stated that prepared food and food that has been handed to the consumer could not be donated to hunger organizations. However, after discussion with the school districts the State ceded that some products, such as pre-packaged vegetables and sandwiches, can be redistributed to hungry families as long as they remained refrigerated and were not distributed to the public.

The second change was the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Offer Versus Serve” policy. This policy made a shift in process that allows servers to give children choices of the food they want so that food that does not get chosen can be donated.

Today, food that kids don’t eat during school breakfast and lunches in these two districts go to local food pantries and the Oregon Food Bank.

Recess before Lunch: A Waste Prevention Strategy

The Hillsboro School District recently implemented recess before school programs. What, you might ask, does recess have to do with food waste?

Washington County's Justin Gast and Hillsboro School District's Carol Stroup worked with students, custodians and other school staff to make Hillsboro School District's recycling program a success. They're holding the Oregon Recycler of the Year Award given by the Association of Oregon Recyclers (Courtesy of Hillsboro School District).

In 2012, the U.S. passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The act set new standards for healthy meals for kids. Administrators were finding that food waste was a big barrier to implementing these programs, because the wasted food tends to be the healthier food.

For this reason, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the School Nutrition Association, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been studying food waste and student attitudes about waste. These studies help the U.S. school meals programs make better decisions about how and what to serve students so that less food is wasted and kids get balanced nutrition.

One of these studies showed that by simply changing the timing of lunch in relation to recess, children would consume significantly more food during the lunch period and waste significantly less food. The study report stated, “When students go to recess before lunch they do not rush through lunch and tend to eat a more well-balanced meal including more foods containing vitamins, such as milk, vegetables, and fruits.”

  • When recess is before lunch, an average school’s student population:
  • Wastes less food (on average, a 27-40 % decrease in waste).
  • Consumes as much as 35% more calcium and protein.
  • Decreases its number of post-recess nurse visits, for such issues such as headaches and stomach aches.
  • Is calmer and ready to get to work immediately instead of needing cool-down time.
  • Increases its post-recess on-task classroom time.
  • Decreases its discipline referrals.
  • Decreases the need for cafeteria-based supervision.
  • Decreases the number of lunch break-related accidents.
  • Generates less litter on school grounds and inside the school.

The Hillsboro School District was impressed by these studies and decided it is clear that recess before lunch is a win-win. Making this switch matches the districts commitment to the environment, saves money and is improving kids’ health and well-being.