Working toward zero waste in the cafeteria

One Florida school district has been making great strides toward its goal to reduce the amount of waste it sends to the local landfills. Alachua County Food & Nutrition Services is enlisting its youngest community members to help get there!

Students at Stephen Foster Elementary School separate their lunch leftovers and trash for compost and recycling, with some food scraps repurposed to feed pigs at a local farm.  The Food & Nutrition Services department received a grant from the State of Florida to launch its new accelerated composting system. 

“We set up a sorting station in the cafeteria. When they are done with their lunches, students separate their waste into three barrels – food scraps, milk cartons and all other trash,“ said Maria Eunice, Executive Director of Alachua County Food & Nutrition Services.

The school nutrition team taps volunteers to help students with sorting from their lunch trays. Students can also sign up to take the “Lunch Captain Pledge” to help their classmates. The voluntary pledge encourages them to set good examples in keeping the lunchroom neat and orderly, be friendly and courteous as well as demonstrate to others how to use the sorting table.

Once the food is collected it is weighed and then placed into the composting accelerator.  

“So far, 3,395 pounds of food scraps have been reduced to 902.8 pounds of dehydrated food. That means Alachua County Public Schools has kept 2,400 pounds of waste from being sent to the landfill,” said Eunice.

There are many benefits to an accelerator composter. Food is broken down in a matter of hours instead of taking months. To avoid attracting animals to piles of compost, leftovers are placed in the composter and dehydrated. The composted material then has several uses, including feeding some farm animals.

Alachua County’s Farm to School coordinator reached out to The Family Garden, which provides the district with some of its local produce.  The farm was interested in the dehydrated food scraps for their pigs. 

“The kids like to know that they are helping to feed animals in the area with their recycling,” said Eunice. “We hope the students will bring their excitement for recycling home to encourage their family members to recycle too.”

Recycling doesn’t stop with food composting, Alachua County also has a process for the Styrofoam breakfast and lunch trays. Used trays are collected, melted into compact blocks and then sent to a recycling plant. One single block saves up to 600 trays from the landfill. 

Eunice says the ultimate goal would be to have its elementary schools become zero-waste facilities. Up next, is a pilot program at Foster Elementary where they will have reusable trays and silverware.

“Most of our schools already have dish machines, so it will take some labor but we think it is worth it,“ said Eunice.

Another benefit to the effort, Alachua County’s nutrition department doesn’t have to look far for employees to help in its kitchens. They work with the district’s special education department through the Growing Education Training (GET) program, students get job experience in the cafeteria.

When the students age out of the GET program, they have work experience.

“We have hired nearly a dozen former students who are now nutrition department employees. It is a wonderful program,” said Eunice.

Last year, the Waste Reduction Project earned the Alachua County Food and Nutrition Services an Innovative Idea Award from the Florida School Nutrition Association. Eunice plans to expand it to other elementary schools in the Alachua County Public Schools district.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: