Schools Pushing for Eco-Friendly Cafeterias

Compostable trays and pesticide-free produce are just a few of the items that large school districts across the nation are hoping to offer within their school meal programs.

According to The New York Times, the Miami-Dade County school district is one of the larger districts that have started to use compostable trays, rather than the Styrofoam trays traditionally used for student lunches. Made of sugar cane, the trays will be composted for farms and gardens rather than filling up oversized landfills. With 345,000 students in the Miami-Dade district, that really is a lot of trays. Penny Parham, administrative director of food and nutrition for the district, feels that this change is environmentally necessary despite the compostable trays being significantly more expensive than their Styrofoam counterparts. She said, “I want our money and resources for food going into children, not in garbage going to the landfill.”

The compostable trays are just one of the goals of the Urban Food Alliance, a group of six large districts that have unified to establish more eco-friendly practices at lower costs. The Alliance includes New York City, the Los Angeles Unified School District, Chicago Public Schools, the Dallas Independent School District, Miami-Dade County Public Schools and Orange County Public Schools. The districts have joined forces in order to coordinate healthy lunch menus while shopping from the same vendors, making their supply costs decrease. The schools have agreed to follow the same lunch menus across the nation, feeding approximately 2.9 million students. Kathleen Grimm, NYC Department of Education deputy chancellor of operations, applauds the allegiance and said, “Our goal is to offer our students nutritious and delicious meals while keeping costs down. Costs for food throughout the country are going up, and the Urban School Food Alliance will help us to band together and control costs by buying in large quantities.”

While it isn’t easy to coordinate matching lunch menus for some of the largest school districts across the country, the schools really stepped up to the challenge, recognizing the importance of student and environmental health as primary concerns. David Binkle, the Los Angeles Food Services Director, found the union impressive, stating, “This show of solidarity is unprecedented. It demonstrates that all the school districts in the alliance can work together to implement the same programs while serving nutritious meals to our students.”

Once districts procure the least expensive vendor to provide the compostable plates, the districts will focus on healthier foods that do not incorporate antibiotics or pesticides. Even utensils can be more sustainable. The changes are bound to help students live a healthier lifestyle, but the positive effects may not stop there. Chances are, students will also come to value the healthier changes and take these healthy practices with them into adulthood after finishing school. Also, once the larger districts are making these changes, the smaller districts are far more likely to follow suit.

Most changes are met with challenges, one of which is that compostable trays take far longer to make than Styrofoam trays. The Alliance has 21 potential vendors willing to produce the compostable trays, but even with so much competition to win a large contract, the eco-friendly trays will still be costly. However, compostable trays can be recycled into something even more valuable: mulch and organic matter. Eric Goldstein, the New York City chief executive of school support systems, recognizes the profitability there. He said, “They could sell that mulch, a buck or two a bag.”

Indeed, the large districts will be swimming in volumes of compost that can be purchased by farms and garden centers. Ultimately, an investment in compostable trays impacts everyone from young children to farmers—a step in a great eco-friendly direction.


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