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The majority of 2020’s most-repeated phrases can be applied to school nutrition programs: COVID-19 has changed everything. These are unprecedented times. Everything is so uncertain. Pivoting has become a way of life. The “new normal” will be completely different. This IS our “new normal.” While all are accurate (to some degree), these new clichés do not necessarily help us manage or cope with the unforeseen situations and ongoing concerns we face as the pandemic slogs on.

When School Nutrition set its 2020 editorial calendar more than a year ago, this issue’s focus on waste and sustainability was expected to cover inspiring and innovative practices that were working in large and small school districts alike. But in the age of COVID-19, many of these have been put on pause. That’s an important word, “pause,” as it is a reminder that the forward-leaning school districts that were leading the way in this area haven’t abandoned their ideals or their commitment.

As new practices for living with the pandemic start to become more routine, and fewer pivots are required, eco-advocates will be able to start turning their focus on innovating in this area once again, finding fresh approaches to reduce, reuse and recycle safely within the restrictions of COVID-19. While environmental scientists are evaluating the long-term benefits and challenges of the pandemic, some futurists are focusing on the potential for identifying “greener” silver linings. Uncertain, unprecedented times can lead to unprecedented, innovative answers.

Rising Above the Challenges

There is no doubt that COVID-19 emergency meals, meals in the classroom and hybrid learning plans have increased the amount (and cost) of packaging used in every school nutrition program. Even sites serving in the cafeteria may be required to wrap or package individual menu components. The question of minimizing food waste is more nuanced, and strategies can vary substantially from one school community to another, often depending on local rules and regulations.

One thing is absolutely certain: There are small—and big—steps that every school can take to minimize both food and packaging waste. There are strategies that nutrition programs can apply at school, as well as many suggestions that can be sent home to families.

After all, school nutrition professionals are incredibly inventive when it comes to problem-solving in changing scenarios. Curbside meal pickup, bus route delivery, meals in the classroom, meal kits, family meal boxes, expanded grab ‘n’ go—only a year ago, most of us would have had a hard time imagining operators would be providing all these types of meal delivery and coping with shortages of plastic bags (as well as toilet paper) as winter turned to spring, summer and fall. This same spirit of innovation will lead to new strategies for waste minimization, even during the pandemic.

Where to Start

In its reopening school guidance released in early summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that schools serve “individually plated or pre-packaged meals” as a way to help manage the potential spread of COVID-19 in school settings. This guidance has created challenges for schools and families alike when it comes to all the containers used to provide school meals. Individually plated meals, along with the absence of self-serve salad and food bars, the loss of share tables, plus fewer opportunities for offer vs. serve have led to potential increases in food waste.

COVID-19 guidelines are evolving as experts gather more scientific evidence. Different jurisdictions also may interpret federal and state guidance in varying ways. When it comes to requirements for packaging and other aspects of meal prep and service, always check with your local health department and/or your state child nutrition office to be sure you are complying with the most up-to-date rules and understand what variance from recommendations is permitted. (Remember that CDC initially recommended students bring meals from home rather than schools providing them. That certainly didn’t stick!)

School nutrition programs have a primary responsibility to feed children in a nutritious, safe and efficient manner. When doing so leads to increased packaging and food waste, the challenge is undeniably discouraging. Emails, questions and comments about controlling waste have become common among district staff, families and community stakeholders.

While there are few easy answers, and none that are sweeping in their scope, school nutrition operators take heart knowing that every effort demonstrates their ongoing commitment to this problem. It’s important to build awareness that even small steps can add up to sustainable results.

Commitment Counts

We reached out to school nutrition professionals across the country to find some real-world solutions. Some of these may not be practical right now, but they remain good suggestions to keep on your radar to adopt down the road. (Again, as you consider strategies for your school or district, remember to check with local and state health authorities before you begin implementation.)

Nancy Deming, Nutrition Services Sustainability Manager for Oakland (Calif.) Unified School District, works with StopWaste, a public agency charged with reducing waste in Alameda County. StopWaste works with students, teachers and school district staff to become leaders in waste prevention and proper recycling and composting at school. And as with many other education-based organizations, StopWaste is reinventing ways to deliver their message and work with partners. “We are proud to partner with our StopWaste School students and champions, who have taken action to stop waste, despite being sheltered in place. We have story after story of individuals, families, classes and clubs who continue to make a difference in this critical time,” reports the organization on its website, which features videos, curriculum materials and food donation guides.

Deming offers the following suggestions that school nutrition departments can take to stay focused on tackling the problem of food and packaging waste:

  • Explore substitutions for plastic packaging, such as using paper instead of plastic bags.
  • Use compostable packaging when local facilities allow and the price makes it feasible.
  • Partner with area food rescue and donation agencies that can take surplus food and undistributed items.
  • Remind staff regularly of your food donation process so that minimal amounts are discarded from school kitchens.
  • Survey students and families (using electronic platforms as available and appropriate) to get feedback on the acceptability of various menu items. Since you can’t monitor plate waste or share table usage right now, surveys may help you determine if you need to make changes in your menu mix.

Meal ordering systems and procedures are key strategies for minimizing food waste. Kara Sample, RD, SNS, Assistant Director of Nutrition Services at Greeley-Evans Weld County (Colo.) School District 6, emphasizes the value that ordering systems provide in giving students choices. “Continue to offer entrée choices, even for in-classroom dining. Develop systems to allow students to choose the lunch entrée they are interested in,” says Sample, noting that these don’t have to be expensive technology-based software solutions. “Our teachers ‘poll’ their students about their lunch choice while they are taking attendance. Our kiddos are less likely to waste food when they get to select the entrée they are excited about!”

Rebecca Polson, School Site Culinary Supervisor (aka chef) for Minneapolis Public Schools reports that a Google docs system used for families to order the team’s popular school meal boxes has significantly decreased the amount of food waste since the start of the new school year. “Our team has built a very intuitive ordering system for our box pickup sites, and this has helped us decrease waste 90% from the first full week of school until now,” says Polson. “In our first week of meal service, we had 189 undistributed boxes; last week we had only 18!” Even these “leftovers” are addressed with sustainability in mind. “Unclaimed boxes are broken down and nonperishable foods are saved and sent back to our Nutrition Center to be used at a later date.”

In Manhattan—Montana, that is—School District #6 Head Cook Shawna Longie can be creative in finding sustainable solutions in this very small, rural district serving approximately 450 students. “All of our trimmings from fruit and veggies and any throwaway food goes into buckets for a local farmer’s pigs and chickens. We also save our clean cardboard boxes for a meat cutter,” reports Longie, who also makes Dayle Hayes-endorsed “delicious” homemade soups using leftover produce.

The uptick in single-use foodservice packaging remains a significant area of concern across the country, as restaurants have increased their takeout service in the face of in-dining restrictions. For their part, school nutrition departments have been addressing this issue for years, but the pandemic has exacerbated the challenge. Today, they are experimenting with a variety of solutions—depending on product availability and cost—and usually in combination with other strategies.

Gayle McKnight, a cafeteria manager at Scotia Elementary, Humboldt County (Calif.) Board of Education, reports: “Our program went to the sealable paper trays rather than bagging everything up. But it still creates a lot of waste! I refuse to use foam containers in my program, so I pay a little more for the paper trays: 34 cents per tray and seal. And we save on the labor costs we had when wrapping and bagging.”

Sherman Central (N.Y.) School District Cafeteria Manager Susan Bates laments the “huge” packaging waste produced by her operation. “I try to buy paper products instead of Styrofoam or plastic, but it’s not always possible. I use the 3-lb. food boats instead of trays, but it still makes me cringe,” she says. At least food waste is on the decrease since families now pre-order meals, she acknowledges.

Annette Haugen, Hugo Elementary Manager, White Bear Lake Area (Minn.) Schools, is optimistic about her team’s waste-minimization efforts. With in-school learning in place, students are eating in the cafeteria, so she’s able to use “real” trays for service. Haugen also finds that without food bars in place, kids usually eat everything on their trays. “No more ‘my-eyes-are bigger-than-my-stomach’ issues,” she says, reporting, “The only things being thrown away are sporks, napkins and paper/plastic cups. I am sure our farmer isn’t too happy because there is no waste for the pig bucket this year!”

Sandy Kepley, Panther Café Manager, West Portland Elementary School, Sumner County (Tenn.) Schools, waits for students to make their breakfast item choices before bagging them for transport to avoid using extra foam clamshells, she reports. Foodservice Director Jean Kinder, Quincy (Ill.) Public Schools, has found success in Eco-Takeouts™, a branded “reusable, washable clamshell that allows us to decrease Styrofoam waste in our grade schools.” Designed and manufactured by G.E.T. Enterprises, Inc., the to-go packages are made of durable polypropylene and can be sanitized in the dishmachine for reuse. Kinder says they cost approximately $4 per unit and can be washed 1,000 times.

Engaging Families

In co-author Jeanne Reilly’s own district, Windham Raymond (Maine) RSU 14, she and her colleagues apply several of the strategies already cited, including urging families to pre-order meals on virtual learning days in the district’s hybrid education model. This has led to a significant decrease in the over-production of meals. The School Nutrition team also promotes waste reduction awareness at home. In addition to sharing ideas on how to reuse or recycle the meal kit bags and other packaging, they provide recipes and cooking tips via social media and blast emails in an effort to encourage families to use all of the food being sent home. For example, they suggest a variety of creative ways to use milk in cooking—including it in soups, hot cereal, smoothies, etc. This reduces milk waste and improves nutrient intake.

Sharing recipes also gives families fresh menu ideas for the bulk foods they receive in their weekend meal kits. This is a win-win for decreasing food waste and encouraging families to cook together. One Windham Raymond favorite is sending home a 1-lb. bag of carrots that is packaged with a family-sized recipe for curried carrot soup, which many of the students have already helped to cook in the classroom with District Chef Ryan Roderick. This is a perfect way for the children to then “teach” their families a cooking lesson that they enjoyed, helping to bridge the gap between school and home, while learning important nutrition lessons and valuable cooking skills.

Finding local waste reduction partners also can go a long way in getting sustainability messages out to families. In Portland (Maine) Public Schools, school meal bags recently included handy recycling magnets from waste management firm ecomaine, providing visual recycling guidance for all of the school meal packaging. Look to other partners for help, such as Team Nutrition, a local Dairy Council or an area agriculture cooperative extension. These groups may be able to offer family-sized recipes for you to share, giving households more creative ways to make use of the variety of foods included in meals for virtual learners. These can be as simple as different ways to enjoy an apple—baked apples, apple crisp or apple snack pairings with cheese or nut butters.

Oakland Unified’s Nancy Deming and her StopWaste partner offer a few more tips for helping families who want to take steps to reduce food and packaging waste:

  • Send home a waste-sorting guide to help students and their families to properly sort disposables at home.
  • Host a virtual activity for students to showcase their home sorting stations.
  • Share smart tips for reusing plastic bags safely.
  • Share fun activities and reuse projects students can do with larger meal kit boxes.
  • Download creative StopWaste activities, including The Amazing Garbologist Adventure Journal, Fridge Reality Check guide and the We are the (Re)Generation toolkit.

Progress Not Perfection

Pandemic fatigue is real. Many folks, including children, are overwhelmed, tired and stressed to their breaking points. While it is easy to focus on the environmental downsides of current meal service models, it is also possible to see some silver—and greener—linings. Helping families learn fun ways—even very small steps—that they can apply to minimize waste at home can provide a fresh and positive activity to enjoy together. Sharing the different ways—even the very small steps—that your school nutrition operation is taking to minimize food and packaging waste at school gives families one more reason to take the meals. These messages can be posted on social media and shared through other virtual and print platforms. Without a doubt, COVID-19 has changed many things, but it hasn’t changed the commitment of so many who still want to take care of the environment.

Dayle Hayes and Jeanne Reilly are co-leaders of TIPS for School Meals That Rock. Hayes is a school nutrition consultant and storyteller based in Bozeman, Mont., and Reilly is Director of School Nutrition at Windham Raymond (Maine) RSU 14.

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