Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Schools Create a Simple Recipe for Change

Digest these tips for making your food-service program tasty and sustainable.

October 28, 2009

It doesn't take a big budget to start greening a school cafeteria, and eco-changes can often save money. Sean Miller, education director of the Earth Day Network, based in Washington, DC, offers these suggestions:

Know Your Numbers

Learning that your lunchroom is an energy hog or a carbon bigfoot can inspire the staff, students, and parents to change. An audit in the Berkeley Unified School District, in Berkeley, California, showed that the district was spending nearly a quarter million dollars each year to get rid of garbage, much of it produced in kitchens and cafeterias. Recycling, composting, and a dish-washing program at one school in the district cut disposal costs between 30 and 60 percent.

After a utility audit by San Diego's school district found that every school refrigerator cost $30-$40 a month to operate, the district bought 1,000 energy-efficient refrigerators through an incentive program from the local electric company. They cost $50 a year to run.

Inspired by the bottom line, administrators can ask students to do audits. Contact your local utility company for information on gas and electricity usage. The RecycleWorks program, in California's San Mateo County, offers a step-by-step guide to performing a school waste audit ( The Real Food Challenge (, a campaign for greener, healthier foods at colleges and universities, has developed a real food calculator specifically for institutional food services.

Buy Local

The 2008 federal Farm Bill allows schools to specify "local" as a bid requirement for foods purchased with Child Nutrition Programs funds, making it easier for schools to change long-standing procurement practices. There are more food sources, too, as local and regional supply chains expand in response to consumer demand.

Buying local can be a financial boon for both schools and area farmers. According to a recent report, five studies have shown that farm-to-school meals generally cost more to prepare than conventional fare but typically increase student participation in meals programs, which drives up revenue. After it began serving local foods at catered sporting and community events, ConVal Farm to School Program in New Hampshire reported an increase in food-service annual revenue from $600,000 to $1 million. The National Farm to School Network ( has information to get you started on a program.

Consider Composting

It diverts food waste and other lunchtime leftovers from the landfill, and it can be used to fertilize a school garden or a local park -- eliminating or reducing the need for chemical fertilizers. At Mansfield Middle School -- slogan: "Where Compost Happens" -- in Storrs, Connecticut, 60 pounds of cafeteria and food waste daily go into a student-run compost bin. Students explain how they do it and how you can, too (

Use Green Cleaning Products, as the U.S. EPA Recommends

Conventional cleansers contain toxic materials that release air pollutants through evaporation and pollute water when residual matter is rinsed down the drain. Green cleaners reduce these hazards, improve indoor air quality, and may be safer for the staff and students. Buying products in concentrate and in reusable, reduced, or recyclable packaging cuts down on trash and transportation energy. The Environmental Protection Agency has information on green cleaning products.

The Responsible Purchasing Network has a database of cleaning products certified by Green Seal and EcoLogo.

Go Green One Day at a Time

Meatless Mondays and Trayless Tuesdays are spreading among K-12 schools and colleges around the world. A study by food-service giant Aramark found that on trayless days, food waste at colleges and universities declined by 25-30 percent per person. Join these initiatives, or pick another day and invent a catchy title -- and your own green movement.

Fran Smith is a contributing writer for Edutopia.

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