Thursday, August 7, 2008

Back to School: Waste-Free Lunches

So, this post isn't about getting your kid a water bottle and reusable lunch bag or even saving money and skipping packaging by buying in bulk. It's about getting your whole school community to act together to do those things, and reduce the overall footprint of your kid's lunchtime fun.

A bunch of us are meeting with the principal of EGirl's school today to talk over just this kind of a program, and since I have been in a researching whirlwind, combing the web and emailing local people who've started similar programs, I figured I would offer up these resources to the wide interweb. As I said when I begged for info on Waste-Free Lunch Programs over at DC Urban Moms, why reinvent the wheel? I know folks have had programs in place for years at some schools.

Here are online resources many kind folks offered up when I put out the plea for info:

EPA Waste-Free Lunch Program resources
Waste Free Lunches (a site maintained by the creators of Laptop Lunches which are neat bento-style lunchbags regrettably filled with small plastic containers - has links to lots of California school programs that are by now well-established)
Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance's tips on packing wasteless lunches
A CA school successfully composting courtesy of Green Bean Dreams

And here's what the generous eco parents in our area had to share about their efforts:

Taylor’s Waste-Free Lunch Program

Goal: The goal of this lesson is for students to see how waste adds up and to learn that that small changes, like packing a waste-free lunch, can make big difference in improving our environment.

Description : The 20-minute lesson provides students with information on reducing school lunch waste and an activity. The student learns to pack a waste-free lunch by bringing reusable containers and utensils, recycling any eligible material, and composting fresh fruits and veggie leftovers from lunch at school.

The first grade lesson was created and led by a first-grade parent using an EPA poster (, some lunch materials, and 3-4 parent helpers. The lesson began with a short review of where our trash goes (incinerated in Alexandria, then transported and buried in an ash monofill in Lorton). Then she reviewed how making less trash improves the environment (less energy and pollution from making single-use packaging, less greenhouse gas emissions, less climate impact, more resources and land available for the future). Lastly, she explained how students can make a big difference by packing waste-free lunches. The students then break into small group and pack their own waste-free lunch. (All food is prepackaged or put in tupperware, so there is no food being handled by the students and therefore no worries about food allergies.)

The Amount of Lunch Waste – “Before”

As part of the program, we weighed the amount of material each grade threw away as lunch waste. Here are the results of the lunch waste weigh-in on November 30, 2007:

* K- 24 pounds (41.1 pounds per student per year)
* 1st - 28 pounds (53.6 pounds per student per year)
* 2nd - 29 pounds (58.6 pounds per student per year)
* 3rd - 22 pounds (43.5 pounds per student per year)
* 4th - 35 pounds (55.2 pounds per student per year)
* 5th - 38 pounds (72.7 pounds per student per year)

This may not seem like much at first glance, but it adds up to 176 pounds per day and there are 180 school days per year. So you end up with 31,680 pounds or just shy of 16 tons per year of lunch waste, which translates to:

* 8 average sized US cars
* 4 elephants
* 54 pounds per student per year (589 students eat at school)

Waste-Free Lunch Day – “After”

We are hoping that students can see that little changes really add up by offering the program to all grades then letting the students have a waste-free lunch week where we would weigh their waste again that Friday and give an award to the grade with the lowest amount of lunch waste per student that day. The blurb below summarizes the results for January 2008:

Feeling Eight Tons Lighter During Waste-Free Lunch Week

Congratulations to Taylor students for learning how to go waste-free at lunch and reducing their lunch trash for Waste-Free Lunch Week. For the week of January 22-25, students cut their lunch waste in half which would translate into an annual reduction of eight tons per year for the school. They did this by using reusable containers, recycling, packing or buying only what they plan to eat, and composting fruits and vegetable scraps. The grade with the least lunch waste was the first grade whose trash would translate into only 19 pounds per student per year earning themselves an ice cream party. The "most improved" grade was the fifth grade who reduced their lunch waste by a whopping 66% earning themselves certificates for free ice cream cones. Many thanks to (parent volunteer) for teaching the students why and how to go waste-free at lunch. Keep up the good work throughout the year!

Curriculum Connections

(I left this in so you will be able to note the need to connect lessons to your community standards and assessment.)

* Science Resources K.10, 1.8, 2.8, 3.10, 3.11, 4.8.
* Health 1.7 Community Health and Wellness (how student decisions contribute to a healthy environment; includes the proper disposal of trash; the prevention of water pollution; the effects of pollution on drinking water and marine life).
* Health 2.3 Knowledge and Skills (influences and factors that impact health and well-being; including the environment).
* Health 4.6 Community Health and Wellness (personal responsibility for healthy practices; the benefits of volunteerism).
* Health 5.5 Community Health and Wellness (work together to build a healthy community; collaborative support for environmental issues).
* History and Social Sciences 1.10 Civics (being a good citizen by taking responsibility for one's own actions).
* History and Social Sciences 2.10 Civics (the responsibilities of a good citizen, actions that can improve the school and community)

Logistics / Misc.

How did you best weigh refuse before and after trying to reduce waste? We “secretly” weighed each grade’s trash before they received the lesson.

Seems a fun opportunity for students to work out the maths of how much waste they could reduce over a year at school. We made a bulletin board with the EPA poster, a sample waste-free and disposable lunch items, and made a bar graph of how the grades were doing “before.”

Did you aim for a reduced waste lunch on one day or did you do them for a whole week? We did a whole week program with a bulletin board in the cafeteria and then weighed each grade’s trash on Friday.

Did you try composting food waste and sorting out litter? Or is that just too messy on a large-scale? We composted fresh fruits and vegetables for the entire week. We also reviewed what can be recycled at school.

Anyone tried keeping worms to work on the compost? Or did you just take it to someone's compost bin each day? We just took it straight to the compost bin outside each day.

What strategies worked best for both school lunch buyers and for students that bring lunch? Only get or bring what you will eat. Take leftovers home so your parents see what and how much you eat. Tell your parents if you do not like something rather than throwing it out. Help your parents pick food that is tasty and healthy. Recycle and compost to the full extent.

What did staff tell the students before lunch and afterwards? Does it fit best with one part of curriculum or another? It fits with the resource strand of the science SOLs and the other Health and Social Studies SOLs listed above.

How did you advertise the event to parents? In our weekly PTA email and one a small bookmark sized take-home paper.

How many parents required to help facilitate each lunch? On Friday, we had two parents to weigh each grade’s trash and remind students what can be recycled and composted. We found some students wanting to pack their trash in their lunch so that it is not weighed, so you may want to remind students to play fair and help collect trash before they zip up their lunch boxes.

How are cafeteria staff and cleaning staff with it? We told cafeteria staff, lunch aides, and custodians that the event was going on, and that parents would do everything.

Talking points for Waste-Free Lunch Announcement

Congratulations everyone for doing their best to reduce waste during Taylor’s Waste-Free Lunch Week!

By using reusable containers, eating your food, recycling, and composting, Taylor Elementary slashed its lunch waste in half. We brought our lunch waste from 16 tons per year down to 8 tons per year! That is two elephants or four cars less trash.

Keep up the good work. Less trash = less pollution = healthier planet and people.

Who gets the ice cream party for creating the smallest amount of lunch waste per student per year? That prize goes to the grade that generates only 19 pounds of lunch waste per student per year…..the 1st grade!

Who gets certificates for a free ice cream cone for the most improved grade? That prize goes to the grade that reduced their lunch waste by a whopping 66% or two-thirds less trash…..the 5th grade!

Thanks so much to Taylor parent Mrs. X for helping us learn how to go waste free at lunch!


From the Key School Green Committee in Arlington, VA --

We experimented with holding a "Trash Free Lunch" one Wednesday before the winter holidays. In early January we launched a weekly trash free lunch. Success has been mixed. Signage and regular announcements from teachers and principal have helped make it work. But without constant reminders, the effort loses momentum. Several parents have told me they now only pack trash free lunches, having made the transition to reuseable plastic containers, Klean Kanteen water bottles, etc. The main point of this effort has been to raise awareness with kids and families, to become more cognizant of how much we throw away each day.

We had a waste free lunch week at Key School in Arlington last spring. It was a week that culminated with a weekend trash to treasure drive we co-hosted with another elementary school.

Basically, we received a lot of our know-how from parents at Taylor Elementary School who had done it last fall. They do far more recycling and environmentally-oriented activities than we do at the moment....

Anyway, I weighed each grade's trash first, before the waste-free/reduced trash week to get a benchmark. I brought in my bathroom scale and weighed myself so that I could subtract that weight from the trash + me weight.

Our student council met and wrote a play about reducing their lunch waste which we filmed and played twice at school on our Friday morning TV program. There were announcements made the week before on the loud speaker, book marks that went home the week before announcing the endeavor along with the trash to treasure drive. Student Council made posters for inside and outside the school advertising both events. I asked teachers to talk up the events in their classrooms.

In the lunch room the week before, I posted a graph that showed each grade's lunch trash weight. I also made a display of items that students could use to reduce their trash such as reusable water/drink bottles, recycled butter tubs for sandwiches, cloth napkin, reusable fork, etc. They were prominent. Over each table, I hung mini posters with trash facts relating their trash weight to the weights of cars, animals (elephants).

During reduced trash week, parents attended each lunch, reminding students to reduce their trash and to have conversations with students about the importance to the earth. They also showed students where to put their fresh fruits and veggie wastes for composting in our schoolyard compost tumbler (it's too small to use it every day, every week).

Even with all of these efforts, we did not get the results we were looking for. The day we weighed the "reduced" trash, some kids hid their trash or threw it away in the bathroom. It is so important to watch for that. I didn't know about it and that class was awarded pens with environmental messages on them. When we learned of the outcome through some vigilant students, their teachers handled it well, making it a character issue. Runners up received the pens.

Taylor parents did more by going into each classroom and giving 20 minute lessons.


Hope this info helps someone else out there who's in the information-gathering stage. I'd be more than happy to talk with you as you plan your own program so shoot me an email if you're just getting started yourself.


Susannah said...

Thank you, MamaBird! I'm a huge fan of the waste-free lunch accessories at, like the sandwich wraps and Laptop Lunch boxes. It was only when I started packing two kids' lunches that I woke up to the amazing number of baggies I was using per week. We're definitely saving money on that grocery line-item.

Minnesota Matron said...

Wow - this is incredible. I'm sending the link to our school principal, right now! You should be writing for Newsweek!!!

Mindful Momma said...

Wow Mama Bird - what an amazing feat! I'd love to do this at my son's school but he goes to an inner-city school with a high percentage of kids on free & reduced school lunch - so the number of kids who bring their own lunch is not that huge. I feel like I need to tackle this from the school lunch side - even though my son doesn't eat it. There's SO much waste - something's gotta change. Wish me luck...

MamaBird said...

Matron, thanks for the kind words as always - you should be able to find local programs in MN since the state site is so comprehensive

Mindful Momma - the school lunch program side of things is so complicated - good luck there - I've written longingly about it before but wish I lived someplace like Boulder, where they've just hired Chef Ann Cooper to make all their school meals local, organic, and sustainable. Sheesh! Not what DC is up to!

eco 'burban mom said...

Oh, thank you. I could just print out this whole post and take it to the school. Working on nagging the school about the poor lunch choices was on my to-do list this summer and I've just not gotten it done. Great post!!

Laura/CenterDownHome said...

Wow! That's fascinating!

I thought about you last week, Mamabird -- My husband came home and told me that one of the new CEO's of the company he works for mentioned, in a meeting, the huge amount of waste generated in the building: Trash, lots and lots of cardboard. Mark told him that a plan they had put in place a few years ago had reduced a lot of the waste, but the plan had been scuttled. The guy who scuttled the plan was also in the meeting, and hemmed and hawed about how much trouble it was, and not worth it, and extra manpower, blah, blah. Not sure if plan will be put back in place, but the fact that they were even talking about it at this meeting signifies raised awareness to me, and that is hopeful. Maybe I should show Mark your Waste-Free school lunch post.

Riana Lagarde said...

I hope to get involved in school lunches here when amaya is that age. In fact,I want to try to push for organic lunches and edible gardens at the schools and even provide a gardening space for our local one. Somehow I want to not just change our eating habits but those in our community as well. You know that I will be referring to many of these sites to get inspiration.

Burbanmom said...

Wow! Great resource, Mama! Thanks so much for compiling it all!

Hope you'll keep us updated on your efforts too!

Bobbi said...

Wow - great info! This is something I've been wanting to attempt at my daughter's school, but wasn't sure where to begin. These links will really help - thanks!

Kellie said...

I hope you don't mind, but I linked to this post on the iVillage board I lead:

I had posted some (very limited) info about waste-free lunches earlier this week and thought your info would be a great follow up to that.

Feel free to pop over there and school us on it if ya' like :)

Kim Moldofsky said...

Great tips! I'm adding you to my feeds.

Chicago Moms Blog

Going Crunchy said...

Hey Mama Bird,

See this entry:

It has a few interesting links that pertain to your topic. Lots of groove going on with parents focusing on school nutrition.

BananaBlueberry said...

I love this!

I am STILL (I'm not as cutting edge as you) going through my pantry and using up ingredients that I find there to make dinners - I love it and my husband does too!!

I even got my retired parents to do this and I am pleased to say- they are :)

It just takes a great example like you - thanks !

Kate said...

this rocks, great resources. Also, how is your cafeteria on buying local produce and milk? We're working hard to make that a reality in our district.