Thursday, November 17, 2011

Pilot Program Looks at Environmentally Friendly Lunch Trays

Vista Grande students and their project.
Molded plastic foam lunch trays have long been on the menu at school cafeterias, but after urging by students at Vista Grande Elementary school -- not to mention Board of Education Trustee Kevin Beiser -- San Diego Unified's Food Services Department is testing more environmentally friendly trays for the next few months at Vista Grande and Ocean Beach elementary schools.

The Vista Grande students got the project rolling during the last school year, when students in Micheline Wagner's fourth grade participated in Project Citizen, a national program that involves students in community problem-solving.

Their efforts caught the eyes of their Tierrasanta neighborhood's representative on the district's Board of Trustees, Kevin Beiser, and the school's area superintendent, Dr. David Lorden. Beiser carried a resolution to the Board of Education that was approved, mandating a switch from plastic foam trays to something more environmentally friendly by 2015.

"I was thrilled to work with environmentally conscious students and other community groups to ban toxic plastic foam lunch trays from our schools," said Beiser. "The era of San Diego Unified Schools dumping over 15 million plastic foam lunch trays into our landfill every year is coming to an end."

The test trays may look familiar to the average consumer as they're made by the same company, Huhtamaki U.S., and with much the same process, as the Chinet brand products on sale at the local supermarket.

"We really want to test the performance of these trays, really see how the kids like them," said Janet Whited, recycling specialist with PPO.

The molded fiber lunch trays are being tested at two schools, Vista Grande and Ocean Beach elementary schools. Staff will be looking at how they hold up to the variety of foods served in elementary schools. Sometimes the entrees or side dishes are hot, sometimes cold; some have a sauce that might soak in, others don't. The students' opinions will also be recorded.

Recycling was also a factor. Some tray types are ready for composting, but there isn't a composting facility in San Diego large enough to take the thousands of trays used by San Diego students every day. The solution came in the molded fiberboard trays and the district's waste-disposal company, EDCO, which will pick up the recyclable trays for free.

In the spring, San Diego Unified's food services department traditionally puts commodities for the next school year out for bid. It's expected the fiberboard trays will be included as bid items, along with the plastic foam trays.

"We hope we can get the price down with competitive bidding," said Whited. "They're currently about twice the price of the plastic foam trays."
For more information on the program, contact Whited at at (858) 637-6268 or