Green Lunches for Schools

plateAmerica’s schools are the well from which the nation will draw tomorrow’s leaders in politics, medicine, science, and education, to name but a few disciplines.

It’s unfortunate that said schools also need a wakeup call – a call that brings them into the 21st Century with green banners flying. One way this call might be issued is a computer revolution in teaching, which switches from classrooms to virtual classrooms on a dedicated sight on the web. Here, young people can access homework assignments, leave messages for teachers and, in general, receive an education without always having to attend overcrowded schools which function more like highly paid babysitters than educational institutions.

This, of course, is an oversimplification of the problems schools face, but everything has to start somewhere, and why not begin in the inner city, where dropout and desperation both spell the end of a young person’s confidence in the future? Because, as most of us know, those who go to school to learn in bad neighborhoods don‘t do well. If they don’t have hope beaten out of them by fellow students who live in equal misery, they soon discover that studying is waste.

Then, while we parents are trying to rebuild an educational ethos, we can throw in a little sustainability, because education is the absolute best way to insure that today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders in all the important fields. And one of the most important attributes they can bring forward is respect for, and willingness to care for, the earth as humanity’s only home.

As the Patterson Parent/Teacher Association (IPSD 204, Illinois) notes, schools are a catalyst for the wider community, modeling environmentally responsible behavior that translates directly into nearby neighborhoods.

Since most schools represent a significant source of waste in their communities, the mere act of embracing “green” will have an impact on local landfills and even more on students, their parents and the neighborhood. This is because good attitudes “mushroom” just like bad attitudes, and even the most jaded adolescent can see the potential for a life-changing future when something like eco-responsibility beckons.

One of the first areas of waste reduction is the lunch room, since this is one of the greatest sources of that waste. For schools, a top-down waste reduction plan – which appoints lunch room monitors to encourage students to eat their entire breakfast or lunch, for example – is usually far less effective than  a bottom-up program, since the monitors are primarily drawn from the “nerdling” population – the one most likely to attract bullies.

A bottom-up program aims to fix the waste issue from the start. If a typical Wednesday hot lunch revolves around a Tuna Surprise that almost everyone hates, remove the offending menu item or add another like macaroni and cheese, which almost everyone loves.

Yes, it means a little more effort from the lunch contractor or the lunch-room ladies, but student’s ability to choose means more autonomy over food choices – a delightful option for the 13-18 crowd, who feel oppressed by adults, who are always setting rules!

Next, consider buying bulk. If your school is too small to make use of 100 pounds of kidney beans, consider enlisting several area schools in the buying process. Not only will schools save on the cost of food, but the excess packaging involved in buying prepared food will disappear. This waste, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, has measured as almost 30 percent of the school lunch waste stream, is something your school pays for – as both an input and an output – but doesn’t get a nickel’s worth of nutrition from.

The OVS (Offer vs. Serve) approach to school lunches further reduces the waste stream, with young people allowed to reject one or two items from the menu while allowing the sponsor to claim the meal for reimbursement from federal government school food programs.

Portion control is another handy weapon in the war against school lunch food waste. School is not the place for enjoying a leisurely meal. Periods are short, and peer pressure may actually make sensitive young people afraid to eat (for a number of reasons, not all of them related to digestion). In any case, if lunch trays are coming back loaded with food, do the obvious: cut down portion sizes.

Also cut down according to age. A teen can eat about twice as much as a 7-year-old, so why serve them the same amount?

Take food waste to the next step and try offering students a lunch menu from which they can order their food in the morning on the same day they are going to eat it. This method, also used in some of the best-run hospitals across the nation, insures that most of what is offered will be consumed. If no one ever orders Tuna Surprise, it will die a natural death (which, frankly, often smells like it has already done so)!

Food preparers can also take advantage of farm-to-school initiatives, buying produce and the like fresh from the land. These fruits and veggies can also be cut before serving, to make sure a petite little first grade girl isn’t expected to eat a humongous orchard apple!

The leftovers that persist in spite of these measures can be composted and returned to the earth via school district food composting programs. These programs, which students can study to understand how the process works, return wonderfully friable soil to local farmers and gardeners. Which means next year’s carrots will be even more nutritious!

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