School Lunch Trays Hamper Our Children’s Future

Growing up in a rural community, I attended a small elementary school, where the school lunch was 35 cents. Every morning my sisters and I took our change to the office where the office assistant would tear off an orange ticket from a large roll and give it to us. The trick was to keep track of the ticket until lunch time when the cafeteria lady would collect them. From there we would pick up a cafeteria tray from the head of the line and make our way slowly down the counter while food was dished out onto real, ceramic plates. We ate our lunches and then took the trays, dishes, and silverware back to the counter to put them into tubs set out for that purpose, splashing them into the slightly murky water.

By the time I got to high school, things had changed somewhat. We still picked up a tray at the head of the line, but we no longer got real silverware. We spent a fair amount of time mocking the new “sporks” that we were supposed to use. The plastic utensil had the tiniest of ridges meant to imitate the tines of a fork. Sporks were largely ineffective for actually stabbing food, making the task of eating anything rather difficult. It also served as a spoon, but any liquid was doomed to dribble out the end.

I largely forgot about sporks or school cafeterias until my daughter began attending kindergarten. She goes to a smaller public school that I value for its healthy eating policy and commitment to the environment. Her school shares facilities with a much larger public school, including the cafeteria. In the morning they offer a free breakfast. As a new parent, I enjoyed being able to go with my daughter to the cafeteria after we arrived, and sit with her as she ate her second breakfast of the morning.

One morning, I followed my daughter to the line where they serve the food. The breakfast selection consisted of cold food that was wrapped in plastic or hot food eerily similar to what you might find on a red-eye flight from LA to NY.

Isabel decided on cereal, which was packaged in an enclosed container. The woman behind the counter presented me with the cereal atop a Styrofoam tray. At first I took it from her, but realizing that the tray was unnecessary, I politely declined, and went to put it back on the stack. She stopped me and told me I had to take the tray. Huh? When I inquired, I was told that the number of trays inventories the number of breakfasts served.

It was one of those warped moments in time when I acknowledged the ridiculousness of what was occurring but was powerless to stop it. If Isabel wanted cereal, I was going to have to take the tray. So, I did. From there, it went to the table, where Isabel ate her cereal, and then, completely spotless and brand new, into the trash. It was accompanied by hundreds of other spotless, brand new trays that every child had been obligated to take.

I was disturbed by this experience, so I did some investigation online. I found the site, which states that “NYC Public Schools discard 850,000 Styrofoam lunch trays every day. At 80 trays/foot the daily stack is 2 miles high, 8.5 times the height of the Empire State building.” 850,000. Every. Day.

The website elaborates on the ripple effect of using these disposable trays. The cost to buy and dispose of them has a huge impact on the NYC landfills. Not to mention the fact that our children are eating off of a product that contains cancer-causing substances, and furthermore that styrene is a major contributor to many environmental messes.

Reading the website can be an overwhelming experience, if you really grasp the enormity of the problems we face in changing this system. In a brief email exchange that I had with Debbie Lee Cohen, the Director of SOSnyc, she described many of the changes they have worked hard to put into place. She explains that that the source of tray counting comes from federal regulations that must be followed in order to be reimbursed for the free meals. There are a large number of other forces influencing why we continue to use Styrofoam trays in schools, including government contracts, cost, the lack of facilities to wash trays, and plain old inertia.

I decided to contact the NYC DOE Office of School Food to confirm their policy about whether children can refuse trays. The Director of Food and Food Support, Steven O’Brien, confirmed for me that children can refuse trays if they don’t want them. Encouraged by this, I have decided to go to my daughter’s School Food committee to make sure that the cafeteria personnel know this, and encourage the children to refuse the trays if they are not needed. Perhaps if I am successful in my own school, we can talk to cafeteria personnel in other schools. This course of action seems practical enough but slow and ineffective.

But for now, I will be content with affecting change within the circle of my control. I’ll commit to working on creating a successful pilot in the hope that a small shift in procedure can have a huge impact on saving taxpayer money while preserving our natural world. As I ponder the effectiveness that this seemingly minute action will have on the greater whole, I am reminded of a quote I read on Twitter by @GreenSkyDeb: If you don’t think small things make a big difference, you never spent the night alone with a mosquito.


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