How Six of the Largest U.S. School Districts Hope to Make School Lunch More Sustainable

THE Urban School Food Alliance announced earlier this week that it will start using compostable round plates in school lunchrooms instead of traditional polystyrene trays. The Alliance includes six of the largest school districts in the nation, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas, and Orlando. Why the round shape? The Alliance’s food and nutrition directors concluded that the round shape will allow students to eat food off plates like they do at home.

“This news is a game changer,” said Alliance Chairman Eric Goldstein and chief executive officer of School Support Services for New York City Department of Education. “As leaders in school meals, we’re proud to create a product that students will not only find easy to use, but one that also protects the environment for many years to come.”

The school districts opting for the tray swap procure over $550 million in food supplies each year to serve over 2.9 million students enrolled in their schools. Serving 2.5 million meals each day to students, the five districts estimates that the swap will result in 225 million fewer polystyrene trays winding up in local landfills each year.

Polystyrene trays cost only about four cents each. The new compostable model runs an average of twelve cents apiece. Schools are no strangers to balancing on a tight budget,making this eight cent increase out of range for the districts. Not to be thwarted, the districts worked with the Alliance and used their collective purchasing power to innovate a compostable round plate for schools at the affordable cost of just under five cents each ($0.049).

The American-made molded fiber compostable round plate is produced from pre-consumer recycled newsprint. It is FDA-approved and manufactured in Maine by Huhtamaki North America. The Alliance round plate has five compartments, with the beverage compartment strategically placed in the middle to balance the weight of a typical meal. The innovative design prevents hinging or bending and is easy to handle.

“Together, we developed a quality sustainable product that will be strategically used in our cafeterias to be ecologically sound and maintain effective business practices,” said Penny Parham, administrative director of the Department of Food & Nutrition at Miami-Dade County Public Schools. “We are proud of the opportunity we have created.”

This Spring, the Alliance has set it sites on locating compostable cutlery and hope to roll out new environmentally friendly utensils during the 2015-2016 school year. The compostable cutlery will replace the infamous plastic sporks–a combination of a spoon and fork–that most students find difficult to use.

These lunchroom policy changes come on the heels of the Alliance’s December announcement that its members will start using antibiotic-free chicken during the 2015-2016 school year.

Although the Alliance has cited sustainability as the main motivation for ditching the old school lunch tray, the swap could help kids combat the growing childhood obesity epidemic. The institutional rectangular lunch tray is significantly larger than a standard dinner plate, allowing many kids to snag more food than they may need to satisfy their lunchtime appetites.

According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, smaller plate sizes could help reduce the childhood obesity epidemic. The study followed two classes of first-graders over eight days. During that time, the 42 students served themselves from a buffet set up by the researchers. Options included penne pasta, chicken nuggets, mixed vegetables, and applesauce. During half of the days, kids were provided plates 7 ¼ in diameter. During the other days, they were provided with standard dinner plates totaling 10 ¼ in diameter. Plates were weighed before and after the kids ate their lunch.

On large plate days, the kids served themselves on average ninety calories more than days were they used small plates. They typically consumed about half of these calories, throwing the rest of their uneaten food away.

Similar studies conducted on adults have also concluded that we tend to pile on more food–and eat it–when we use larger dishes at mealtime.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.” In 2012, for example, “more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.” The CDC defines overweight as “having excess body weight for a particular height from fat, muscle, bone, water, or a combination of these three factors.” Obese is defined as having an excess amount of body fat. Obesity poses many dangers for youngsters, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, pre diabetes, and sleep apnea. Bone and joint problems are common in obese teens, along with social and psychological problems like stigmatization and low self-esteem.

Considering that at least one study has suggested that kids who eat school lunch are 29 percent more likely to be obese than those who bring their lunch to school, the transition from polystyrene trays to more traditional round plates is likely a welcome change.

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