adventures in modern, urban domesticity

School Lunch Confidential: Inside Cafeteria Composting


That’s right—what you are looking at is the inside of a trash can.

If you pulled back to a wide angle, you would find yourself in the middle of an elementary school cafeteria on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, one where almost 1,000 kids eat their lunch (or don’t, as the case may be) every day.

What’s different about this particular can of waste is that it won’t be headed to a landfill, where most school waste across the country ends up.  Instead, this collection of organic material—fruit, lasagna, bagels, napkins, half-eaten sandwiches—will be picked up and taken to the Riker’s Island food Waste Composting Facility, where it will be transformed into organic fertilizer on a grand scale.  By diverting our organic waste for composting, our school will cut it’s trash output by 85%. If  you can imagine a city sidewalk, that translates roughly from 10 bags sitting curbside, to 1 or 2.

As I described in an earlier post,  my children’s elementary school is participating in a composting pilot project this year, one that NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg has announced will be expanded to include even more schools next year. PS 87  is composting as part of a larger sustainability initiative that also addresses recycling and energy efficiency.  We also just received a $500 grant from the Wrigley Foundation to become an Eco-School – something I will be writing more about in upcoming posts.  As part of this process, we will be creating an Eco-Action Plan and conducting a waste audit, to help our community better understand how we use our resources.

As a parent-volunteer on our school’s Green Team, I have had the opportunity to don a hairnet and apron and spend some time in the cafeteria during lunchtime, standing at the waste station and helping students separate all the components of what is left at the end of their lunch.  There are now five different receptacles for their waste after a meal and, naturally, there is a learning curve:  any leftover drinks need to be emptied into a “liquids bucket” before the container is either recycled or put in the trash.  Or perhaps the drink box is recyclable, but not the straw.  Then there are all the various food wrappers—which ones are recyclable? Even if you think you know something about recycling it is confusing.

The compost itself is very straightforward—all the food, napkins and trays are compostable—but the whole process makes students stop and consider all of the elements that make up their lunches.  What is my yogurt container made of, anyway?  And that Capri Sun bag? It looks recyclable, but it’s not. Training students to think about what they’re eating and throwing away is an integral part of a successful composting system because if too many plastic baggies and sporks end up in the compost bin, the batch will be contaminated.


My new job also has been a window onto the lunchtime habits of elementary school students in their natural habitat.  For the record, I am not a fan of the way children eat at at school in this country.  Lunchtime is a learning opportunity that is squandered in most public-school cafeterias.  In my daughter’s afterschool cooking class, the students learn to prepare simple foods, to set a table, sit down at the table, ask for things to be passed, eat using utensils, all while having a group conversation that doesn’t involve yelling—it’s actually a lot to do at one time and is not something that comes naturally to the very  young.  Afterward, they clean up together.

Now, I know that it would be a huge challenge to feed 1,000 students family-style every day, but in all of the recent efforts to improve what students are eating, there hasn’t been much talk about how they are eating it.  Besides the Navy or prison, where else in life to you line up with a tray to eat like you do in the school cafeteria? (No disrespect to the Armed Forces—or the penal system, for that matter—but one presumably doesn’t join for the dining experience.) But I digress.

School lunch

Although I harbor a lot of opinions about the cafeteria, I hadn’t actually been inside until I signed up for compost duty and I found that it wasn’t quite as bad as I had imagined.  Sure it was loud and chaotic, but the food was better than it used to be, thanks to efforts like Wellness In The Schools to make improvements. (This does not include the inexpliciable “peanut butter and jelly sandwich” that comes packaged and substitutes real bread for something more like graham-cracker pastry.)  Still, only 300 out of 1,000 students eat school lunch each day.  The rest bring their lunch, and it was interesting to see the range of meals, from beautiful home cooked soups to fun-sized boxes of Apple Jacks.

Regardless of what the children were eating, it was remarkable how much they were throwing away.  Standing next to the waste station, I would see adorable little children come up with whole baggies full of beautifully cut fruit (lovingly prepared, no doubt, by their harried parents) and empty them all into the compost.  They would open a container of yogurt, take one spoonful, and throw the rest away. Sandwiches barely eaten. It was almost as if the whole purpose of unpacking their lunches was to throw them out – skipping the eating part altogether! I couldn’t help but start asking them, “Don’t you want to save that for a snack after school?” or “Why don’t you try to finish that yogurt?” Eventually, we made a separate bin for whole, untouched fruit.

Maybe there is something about the cafeteria experience itself that is vaguely unappetizing, but the amount of food kids were throwing away was alarming. And therein lies both the challenge and the opportunity in implementing a cafeteria composting program: it’s a chance for kids to take a moment and think about their food, its packaging, and where it all goes when they throw it away.

It’ll take much more than installing an extra bin in the lunchroom to make this effort a success. It will require changing the habits of the entire school community, asking them to stop and consider each of the items on their trays and where it will end up.  Getting an already overworked cafeteria staff on-board with this new initiative will be another challenge.  Many don’t really see the value in composting (yet!) and don’t welcome what is perceived as yet another thing to add to their list of tasks.  Yet, just as recycling is mandated in the schools and has been integrated into facilities management, its likely that over time composting will become part of the routine.  But at this point, it isn’t routine, and in order for the process to work, someone (a parent volunteer) needs to stand at each bin and make sure that sporks and plastic bags don’t end up contaminating the compost.

Plastic-wrapped Sporks: the enemy of compost.

Plastic-wrapped Sporks: the enemy of compost.

For the most part, the children seem to get it—especially the younger ones who love the challenge of getting the right stuff into each bin.  As part of the composting pilot projects, Green Team volunteers have been visiting each of the classrooms to talk with the students and teachers about recycling and composting.  It has been a fascinating experience to hear elementary school students talk about waste, everything from guessing how far away our garbage is trucked (answer: to Ohio) to imagining ways they could reduce waste in their school communities or at home (this is how parents like Elissa Gootman end up with worm composts in their kitchens!). These topics integrate well a variety of classroom subjects—especially science, technology and design —and we recently organized a visit from the non-profit group, SOLAR1, who gave a presentation to a few interested faculty on how to integrate environmental topics into their classroom curriculum.

The program is gaining momentum, and Mayor Bloomberg’s commitment to removing styrofoam trays from school cafeterias will pave the way for composting to become integrated into the system in the same way that recycling has. With over 1,700 schools in the DOE, the waste-reduction potential could have a huge impact and serve as a model for how the city could compost in other areas. But there are still a number of obstacles to overcome:

  1. One word: plastic. Now that the trays have been made compostable, we need to do the same with the utensils.  The plastic-wrapped sporks are the No. 1 compost contaminant, and the fact that they come individually wrapped in a plastic bag is just lame.  The same goes for the plastic bags of cut fruit. No one eats those. Trust me.
  2. Recycling is confusing. Sure, everyone knows about the basics: paper, glass, and plastic water bottles.  But what about tetra-paks, juice boxes and all those other containers lunch food comes in? While I thought I knew a thing or two about recycling, I realize there is more to find out – something I will be exploring in future posts.  With clearer information and signage, things would go much more smoothly in the cafeteria.
  3. Winning over the cafeteria staff. The people who run the cafeteria must be brought into the conversation and convinced that composting is worth the initial extra work.  Their experience on the ground is essential to the success of the program and their insights could help it run more efficiently.
  4. Winning over the teachers. Getting the buy-in of the faculty may be the most important piece of all. Without their support, addressing waste will be just another extra-curricular activity.  With teachers integrating composting and recycling into the classroom, students will better understand how their efforts in the cafeteria connect to everything else they are learning.
  5. Confronting the culture of waste. Ultimately, putting less into the bins is the goal. Getting people to think about waste is crucial, but giving them the tools to make effective change is equally important.  One direct way into this issue is by promoting the packing of waste-free lunches and showing parents how easy it is to do.

There is a lot of work yet to do before our schools are waste-free and our city is composting on the same level as places like San Francisco. But it is amazing to see the progress so far. Here is a video documenting some of the measures NYC public schools are starting to take:

I would love to hear about composting programs in other schools across the country.  Why re-invent the wheel when we can learn from one another?














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3 Comments on “School Lunch Confidential: Inside Cafeteria Composting

  1. Karyn
    March 5, 2013

    Thanks so much for your report, Heather! I can’t wait to show this to my mom, who teaches first grade in KY and shares many of your cafeteria concerns!

  2. Helen Topcik
    March 5, 2013

    Wow! there is a lot to know about composting. I am also left with another thought: Isn’t it amazing that kids can be so easily distracted from eating, and they seem to only eat when they’re hungry, unlike so many adults who mindlessly shovel it in whether they’re hungry or not.

  3. Pingback: » My School Lunch Fantasy domaphile

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This entry was posted on March 5, 2013 by in COMMUNITY, KIDS + FAMILY and tagged , , .


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