green food tray


A new sustainable menu


Lunchtime at Hubbard Woods Elementary used to be pretty old school.  Ten years ago when my oldest son started eating there, kids either went home for lunch or ate from brown bags on fold out tables in the auditorium.  Times have changed.  Now optional organic meals are catered in and a great deal of lunch waste can be recycled, reused or composted thanks to efforts by Environmental Committee Chair Liz Kunkle.  On average, school children generate 67 pounds of lunch waste per year, for a typical elementary schools this adds up to 18,760 pounds per year.  Why use educational dollars to build landfills?  And why not serve tasty, nutritious, eco-sourced food that supports kid’s health and learning?  Lunch may be the best time to weave in hand’s on lessons on waste reduction opportunities, nutritional eating choices and sustainably farmed food.  Thanks to some forward leadership, greener and healthier lunchrooms are emerging throughout North Shore schools. Principal David Rongey of Glencoe’s West Elementary School, (an all star of environmental stewardship!), sums up an important goal, “We are not looking for perfection from our 8 to 10 year olds, we just are trying to encourage and install life-long conservation values and skills.”  Since PTA/administration priorities vary and every lunchroom set up is different (from bring your own bags to catered food service to cafeteria meals cooked in-house), there’s a wide range of approaches.  Here’s a sampling of successful initiatives and local resources to green your school lunchroom.


Start or join the Green Team

Great green ideas need champions.  Fortunately, most local schools have built some form of a green team made up of  teachers, school and district administrators, parents and/or student clubs to promote sustainability.  Lunchroom/cafeteria staff, custodians and on-site garden/compost facilitators may also need to help integrate programs. The key to effective, lasting programs usually boils down to evaluating the costs/savings, working through the logistics, cultivating participation and securing commitment from school administrators, faculty

Mary Allen from SWANCC presents eco-programs for schools throughout the year. Photo from

and staff.  A great waste reduction resource for green teams is the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County (SWANCC). The agency provides lunchroom waste audit guidelines and waste free lunch tips, an E-List for Educators newsletter, and educator/green team/student presentations and workshops.  Also, last year Katie Nahrwold from Joseph Sears School in Kenilworth had the brilliant idea to organize occasional meet-ups with green team members from local schools.  Meetings, held at rotating schools, are a great way for school reps to share green ideas and resources.  The next (North Shore area) Environmental Awareness meeting is October 18.  Contact Katie Nahrwold,, if you are interested in joining.  Other green school information sources include SCARCE (in DuPage County), Center for Green SchoolsGo Green Initiative, and Green School Alliance.


Set up recycling/reuse collection

Typically recycling in the lunchroom includes aluminum cans and foil, plastic and glass bottles

and paper products.  Another emerging opportunity is school carton recycling.  Over 6.5 billion milk carton are used by k-12 students every year, so removing them from the wastestream can make a big difference.  Highland Park District 112, Wilmette District 39 and some Chicago public schools (often served by Veolia) are currently recycling milk cartons.  A pail or sink is needed to empty liquids before dumping cartons into the bin.  Terracycle brigades also allow for the collection of hard to recycle waste, such as drink pouches, dairy tubs and chip bags.  After signing up, items can be shipped free to Terracycle to be upcycled into new products.  Hubbard Woods currently collects Capri Sun juice pouches, and contributes them to West School creating greater efficiencies for both.  The lunchroom can also a great place to collect supplies for the art room or other projects.  Once while volunteering,

Find products made from repurposed lunch materials at

a teacher was collecting milk cartons for a candle making product.  In any case, a recycling needs to be convenient, with clearly marked containers set up next to the trash can.  Local K-12 schools can apply for a $200 grant from SWANCC to buy recycling containers.  Some sorting supervision may be needed to reinforce proper, consistent sorting.  At Hubbard Woods, the custodial staff and periodic parent volunteers help with monitoring.  West School has enlisted student Green Guides to help oversee the sorting stations.  In some schools, associates who assist with these efforts are compensated through stipends.  Behind the scenes, cafeteria kitchens can also recycle materials including cardboard packaging, steel cans and glass jars.


 Compost food waste

Since a large portion of lunchroon waste is leftover or uneaten food, more and more schools are turning to composting.  The specific materials collected vary depending on the composting

A student at Highcrest Middle School in Wilmette dumps food waste from the cafeteria into the on-site compost station.  Thanks to eager student turning and watering, finished compost can be added to gardens within months.  Photo courtesy of Beth Drucker and Sarina McBride.

system.  West School has five Solar Cone containers that are assigned to each day of the week so the capacity isn’t overloaded. The Johanna model they use is rodent-proof and can accept bones, fish and meat and can be used in freezing weather with the addition of  special “winter jacket”.  They also mix in leaves, straw and lime to help process the food waste.  Several schools have paired their on-site garden/outdoor classrooms with compost piles.  Often these garden heaps recycle vegetable, fruits, and grains (avoiding meat and dairy to deter rodents and odors). SWANCC grant funding can be used toward compost bins, which helped Nichols Middle School (Evanston) purchase theirs.  Another composting option schools are turning to is food scrap pick up.  Mary Beth Shay from Collective Resource explained they can accept produce peels, lunch meat, dairy products and even uncoated paper products, chopsticks and compostable bio-containers, since collected lunch waste heads to a commercial compost facility.  The level of food waste pick-up services depends on the school’s disposal budget.  Liz Kunkle helped arrange weekly Collective Resource pickups

My daughter dropping her lunchwaste into the compost pail in the Hubbard Woods lunchroom.  Collective Resource picks up the leftover fruits, veggies, buns, meat, dairy and soiled napkins in their weekly pick ups. 

for Hubbard Wood’s (Winnetka) lunch waste.  Dewey Elementary (Evanston) collects a bucket per week from their Books and Breakfast program.  Other schools have set up special one-time collections for specific events, such as Earth Day, Math or Science Nights or other PTA/PTO fundraisers.  After a successful composting pilot project least year at Braeside School (Highland Park), District #112  is working with Organics on the Move to pick up food waste from all twelve of its schools.  Some North Shore schools are also diverting some food waste through vermicomposting or worm farms, a popular addition to science classrooms.  As with recycling, clearly labeled compost pails need to be conveniently located near trash cans and recycling containers.  Food waste needs to be transferred from pails to outdoor compost bins or bagged containers after lunch periods.  At West School (Glencoe), student Green Guides also help with this chore.  Composting can take a huge dent out of garbage disposal, especially if food scraps and compostable servingware from on-site cafeteria kitchens are also diverted.


Walking into New Trier East for a parent meeting, I was welcomed by a compost sign blanketing the the front desk. Spearheaded by student Andrew Katcha, Environmental Club members and physical plant staff are now overseeing composting of veggie and fruit waste in the big cafeteria.  Sawdust from shop, newspapers from the school newspaper office, and leaves for composting are also into the on-site bin.


Promote zero waste lunches

A sampling of lunch gear my kids like to use, all found at

Encourage parents and students to bypass throwaways by investing in durable,washable lunch gear.  Plenty of options have become available, including lunch totes, glass containers and stainless bento boxes, sandwich “sleeves”, utensils, thermoses, water bottles, cloth napkins, etc.  See Mighty Nest’s Essential Gear for a Healthy Waste Free Lunch.  A popular school lunchroom promotion is Waste Free Wednesdays, when posters, newsletter tips and calendar reminders encourage students to drop disposables.  At Romona Elementary in Wilmette, Jodi Ryan and Susan Pekar started a waste free lunchtime raffle.  On the first Wednesday of every month, kids who bring their own lunches in reusable containers or who are properly recycling their school lunch are entered into the raffle.  Winners are picked from each grade and prizes include a variety of reusable containers from Might Nest (purchased with SWANCC grant funding).  As a fundraising opportunity, Romona and several other schools in Evanston, Kenilworth and Wilmette have partnered with Mighty Nest.  Families that purchase eco-friendly products from the Evanston-based company earn back 15% of sales for their school.  Some schools also include reusable lunchware in their wearables sales, such as canvas bags or themoses stamped with the school’s label.  For more green product ideas, check out Green My Lunchbox or wren’s Earthwise School Supplies.

This lunchroom poster is available at


Avoid disposables in food service

Organic Life totes in reusables for catered lunch service.  Imagine the garbage nightmare (waste & cost) if catered lunch service was geared around disposables.

Lisa Winter, the Food Service Coordinator for Wilmette School District #39, shared with me some ways they are reducing waste in their six school lunchrooms, all having in-house cafeteria kitchens.  Depending on the school, students eat off of washable plates or compartment trays, compostable plates or paper boats and are supplied with washable metal utensils.  Polystyrene trays or plastic utensils are not used.  Recently, the Wilmette Junior High removed disposable water bottles, and now student helpers pre-pour water in reusable cups from pitchers.  Last year, Loyola University banned the sale of plastic water bottles as well.   The biggest hurdle for incorporating reusables in food service is having the capability to wash them.  Lunchrooms need space, funding and staffing for dishwashers.  At Baker Demonstration School in Wilmette, students can fill their own reusable water bottles with reverse-osmosis filtered water from their Coolersmart bottleless water cooler.  This system not only reduces the use of disposable water bottles, it also eliminates the cost and energy used to transport, store and dispose of hefty water jugs.  An interesting effort to remove styrofoam from schools is New York public school’s Trayless Tuesdays. On these days, food is served on compostable paper boats (with adjusted menus, such as sandwiches, to avoid leaky meals) instead of the disposable tray.  This cost neutral solution reduces tray use by 20% and diverts 2.4 million Styrofoam trays per month from landfills.  Schools can also reduce trash bulk and expense by “flipping, tapping & stacking” disposable trays.  For lunchrooms that don’t have an on-site kitchen and cater in food for students, it’s important to encourage food vendors to use reusable serving and tableware instead of disposables.  At Hubbard Woods (Winnetka), Organic Life delivers meals in stainless steel buffet pans. They also supply tubs of reusable plates and utensils, which they bring back and wash.

Lunchrooms aren’t the only place with food waste.  Consider all the throwaway stuff used for frequent class parties and special events. Peggy Salamon came up with an innovative solution for Central School (Wilmette) to cut down on trash and save money.  She assembled reusable “party packs” for every classroom in the school to replace disposables.  Each tote includes 30 sets of recycled, recyclable, BPA-free Preserve plates, cups and utensils that can be used hundreds of times. With wholesale pricing and a school discount, each pack came to $70, which was financed by parents, PTA and Environmental committee.  After two parties, the packs break even with the cost of disposables.  One mom per room commits to wash and store the pack.  As a modified version, Hubbard Woods has three party packs available on a first come first serve basis.



Reduce food waste

When it comes to home-packed lunches, most parents probably have no idea the food they lovingly pack may be trash bound.  From volunteering in the lunchroom, I’ve seen firsthand mounds of uneaten food pitched straight into the garbage.  Either kids are pressed for time,

Is sending a half sandwich more realistic in your kid's lunch bag?  

too busy socailizing or rushing to get to recess.  Or maybe they’d rather not dine on what they’ve been served.  Parents might want to look into how much their kids actually eat vs. throw away.  Bringing home leftover food or adjusting portion sizes can help.  Cafeteria-style food also creates a great deal of waste.  A 2002 USDA school cafeteria study, the value of wasted food is probably around $1 billion annually.  The cafeteria line and catered food service can cut back on waste by offering kids choices instead of doling out pre-fixed components.  By engaging parents and students with menu planning and taste testing, schools can improve the appeal and success of offerings.  Lunch servers have also found that appetizing food presentation matters.  Cutting fruit, instead of keeping it whole, or placing fruit in colorful bowls, increases the likelihood that kids will actually eat it.  Beyond cutting back on waste and saving money, consider that if we trashed just 5 percent less food,it would be enough to feed 4 million Americans.



Offer healthy, local, sustainable food

Imagine if school kids were served tasty lunch that was good for them and the environment.  By transitioning to a sustainable food system, schools can save money, offer students healthier food and reduce their ecological footprint.  So says Beyond Green Partners,

Jamie Oliver would be proud! Julian Arsen serves Niles North High School students fresh, organic food during their lunch period. Photo from Curtis Lehmkuhl, Sun Times Media.

the food-service consultants who just helped Niles Township District #219 high schools set up a new organic, sustainable lunch program.  Seeking more nutritious food, cheaper costs and eco-friendly practices, last year Niles North and Niles West left the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and contracted with OrganicLife.  Now food is mostly cooked from scratch with fresh, local/seasonal, organic, hormone/antibiotic free, free range poultry and grass-fed beef products.   Cafeteria food buyers are also connecting with local farms and farmers markets during the growing season for fresh healthy ingredients, found through Illinois Farm to SchoolFamilyFarmedIllinois MarketMaker and The Local Beet/Chicago.  Purchasing locally produced food can help save money and reduce pollution from transporting food long distances.  For schools that bring

Fast food is no longer the only food service option, with companies like OrganicLife, Gorilla Gourmet and Stash's offering healthy homemade organic meals to students. Photo from 

catered meals into their lunchrooms, several companies offer food made from fresh, local/seasonal, organic, hormone/antibiotic free, free range poultry and grass-fed beef products as well.  As a few examples, Hubbard Woods (Winnetka) and West School (Glencoe) use Organic Life, Baker Demonstration (Wilmette) and Crow Island (Winnetka) use Gorilla Gourmet and Braeside School (Highland Park) and Crow Island (Winnetka) use Stash’s.  For more on information about bringing sustainable food into school lunchrooms, see this Sustainable Table listing and Chicago-based blog Fed Up with Lunch.



Make connections to on-site gardens

Yum, fresh handpicked tomatoes from the school garden.  Photo courtesy of Academy for Global Citizenship website. 

Edible gardens are sprouting up in schoolyards throughout the North Shore.  Not only can outdoor classrooms offer engaging ways to teach kids a variety of subjects, ideally garden lessons reinforce the value of growing and eating local, fresh, healthy, organic food.  In 2004, the Dawes School Edible Garden Project was launched with the construction of six raised beds for an organic edible garden.  Students are involved in all aspects of farming the garden, including planting, watering, harvesting, cleaning, preparing, tasting, and donating/selling the food. Dawes was such a great model of an environmentally based experiential learning program, the SAGE  (Schools are Gardening in Evanston) initiative helped expand gardens to most of Evanston District 65 schools, from edible earth boxes to raised beds.  Many other hands-on, edible school gardens can be found in Glencoe, Glenview, Kenilworth (installation coming this October), Wilmette and Winnekta.  School gardens accompanied by compost piles serve as the perfect destination for lunchroom food waste.  What better way to teach kids about natural cycles than recycling food and yard

ETHS students tend to the Edible Acre that contains 24 garden plots. Photo from ETHS website.

waste into fertilizer for plants.  School gardens can also supply fresh produce for cafeteria meals, although this may depend upon the growing season, sanitation/certified food supplier requirements and the scale of production.  The Edible Acre project is a partnership with between Talking Farm coordinators, Evanston Township High School staff and hired ETHS students dedicated to educating the community about the importance of locally grown food.  Green team students help weed, water and harvest the raised beds plots.  The resulting beets, salad greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, green beans, yellow crook neck squash, parsley, basil have been used in cafeteria lunches.  Some produce is also sold at the farmers market or donated to local food pantries.  The green charter school in Chicago, Academy for Global Citizenship also grows food for their lunchroom. The school’s proposed new “living building” will incorporate a minimum of three acres of urban agriculture, including vegetable gardens, orchards and greenhouses.  Also, the University of Illinois Dining Services receives a supply of produce from their Sustainable Student Farm, which is a registered CSA.  For more information, check out the Edible Schoolyard Project and this listing of resources.


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Written by Amanda Hanley.  A huge thanks to everyone that provided such great examples and insights!