This messy school cafeteria project dives into how students eat and waste food

Last week Whitewater Middle School students in Charlotte donned plastic gloves and plunged into some 200 pounds of food their classmates trashed after eating in the cafeteria.

They mucked out the remains of pasta, tacos and yogurt parfaits. They tallied untouched green salads, fresh Asian pears and whole-grain rolls with only a bite or two nibbled out, all destined for the landfill.

It was, they said, both disgusting and enlightening.

“You don’t realize how much food waste you’re making till you actually see it,” said eighth-grader Cody Gist.

“People don’t eat half their food — or any of their food,” marveled classmate Destiny Davis.

After last week’s food audit, in which students sorted and weighed food waste, liquids, disposable trays and other types of cafeteria trash, Whitewater switched to compostable paper trays this week. Working with Every Tray Counts, a nonprofit group based in Chapel Hill, the school hopes to set the stage for a full-district switch from polystyrene to paper trays, following the lead of Chapel Hill-Carborro, Durham and, most recently, Wake County Public Schools.

On one level, it’s a lesson on choices, tradeoffs and unintended consequences. The northwest Charlotte school added environmental science as a schoolwide theme and magnet program this year. Teachers are guiding their pupils through research on the ways food and waste are linked to profit and poverty, healthy and toxic neighborhoods, social justice and global trends.

Taishon Marable, 13, dumps uneaten food into a bucket before it gets weighed during a food waste audit at Whitewater Middle School. John D. Simmons

But this isn’t just an academic exercise. Whitewater is joining a network of schools, businesses and neighborhoods working to make composting as mainstream as recycling. The strategies being crafted today have big implications for taxpayers and residents across Mecklenburg County.

“The larger issue is conservation of landfill space,” said Laurette Hall, an environmental management official with Mecklenburg County Solid Waste. The county has enough space to last maybe 25 more years, she said, which isn’t as much as it sounds like in a rapidly growing and urbanizing area.

And Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is a major player, generating more than 10,000 tons of trash a year.

What’s up with the trays?

To trace the challenges of school cafeteria trash, let’s start with the question most adults ask: “What happened to the hard plastic plates and trays we remember?”

Some CMS schools still use them, says Catherine Beam, executive director for school nutrition. But there are two big barriers, she says.

One is hiring the staff to scrape the plates and put reusable items into dishwashers. Cafeteria assistants make less than $12 an hour and work part time. In a healthy economy, not only school cafeterias but restaurants around the region are struggling to fill dishwasher jobs, Beam said.

The other is speed. Some crowded schools use disposable trays and utensils so students can dump everything in the trash and clear out quickly for another lunch shift to take their place, Beam said.

Destiny Davis, 14, stacks polystyrene trays during a food waste audit at Whitewater Middle School. John D. Simmons

In either case, the solution can be divided polystyrene trays. They’re convenient but they take up landfill space and are suspected of releasing carcinogens, according to the federal government’s National Toxicology Program.

Every Tray Counts began when a couple of Chapel Hill mothers realized their kids were eating from and throwing out the polystyrene trays. They launched the push for paper trays that can be turned into soil.

The sturdy paper trays cost about 6 cents each, compared with about 3.5 for polystyrene, says Beam. That doesn’t sound like much until you consider that CMS uses about 2 million polystyrene trays a year. That means switching to paper would cost the district about $50,000.

Every Tray Counts is picking up the tab for the Whitewater pilot.

Where does it go?

Mecklenburg County composts yard waste but doesn’t have a facility for food waste, Hall said. For that, the county turns to the private Earth Farms Organics in Gaston County.

For about five years, the county has worked with up to 25 public schools to haul food waste to Earth Farms, but without the compostable trays, Hall said. And she noted that the city of Charlotte is testing a neighborhood curbside pickup program for food scraps to be hauled to Earth Farms.

Mecklenburg County is paying to get Whitewater’s compostable waste to Earth Farms.

Part of the project will be teaching students to sort what goes into composting bins, said Susan Scope of Every Tray Counts, who’s working with the school. For instance, paper napkins can go with the food scraps, but if students drop in chip bags, plastic forks or other unsuitable trash the whole load could be too contaminated to use.

Scope said her vision is not just for CMS to adopt composting districtwide, but to see public landfills across the state add food-waste composting and have commercial garbage haulers agree to deliver it. “We would like North Carolina to be a leader,” she said.

Why all the uneaten food?

During the food audit, the students doing the sorting got a dramatic lesson in unintended consequences, as they saw green salads and fresh fruit deposited in the trash untouched. Why?

Anyone who has read Michelle Obama’s best-selling memoir “Becoming” knows about the former first lady’s passion for fighting childhood obesity, partly through making school lunches healthier. Because the federal government pays for meals for low-income students (about $58 million for CMS this year), the U.S. Department of Agriculture gets to lay down some rules.

Among them: Students must take at least one fruit or vegetable with their lunch.

But as the Whitewater trash-sorters learned, that doesn’t mean everyone eats what they take. Beam, the CMS nutrition chief, says health regulations mandate that food like that can’t be reused — it may look untouched but you can’t be certain it’s uncontaminated once it’s been handed out.

Some of the students said they’d like to see the rules changed so no one is compelled to take items they don’t want. Beam, however, says that with several fruits and vegetables on each day’s menu, she wishes students would just make smarter choices and pick something they like.

The big picture

The final tally: From one day’s lunch, just over 700 students at Whitewater generated 207 pounds of food waste and other compostable material, just over 50 pounds of discarded liquid and almost 16 pounds of trays, said Jeffie Hardin, staff coordinator for the school’s Green Team environmental club.

That comes to almost 274 pounds of waste each school day that could be diverted from the landfill, she said.

“That would equal 49,266 pounds which could be kept out of the landfill” in a school year, Hardin said. “Multiply that by the number of schools in CMS…. Mindblowing.”

The kids also collected almost 34 pounds of cartons, cans, bottles and foil that could potentially be recycled, and about 39 pounds of plastics and other trash, Hardin said.

Principal Beth Thompson said she has watched the students advise each other about the new approach to sorting their trash.

“Students understand why it mattered because of the extensive learning they had experienced and so not one student resisted, fussed about or refused to do a little extra work when throwing away their waste,” Thompson said Tuesday.

Whitewater teachers like Kenan Kerr and Mollie Lyman make sure students understand how their own eating habits are part of bigger issues. In Kerr’s environmental literature class, for instance, they read novels such as Carl Hiaasen’s “Scat” and nonfiction books such as Eric Scholsser’s “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal.”

Lyman, who works with several language arts classrooms, makes sure classes are discussing such issues as how impoverished neighborhoods often have less access to healthy food and how food choices affect animal welfare and the global economy. They had a visit from Alicia Pruett of The Bulb, a Charlotte nonprofit that takes donated food and creates “mobile markets” in neighborhoods that lack healthy food access. She told them, for instance, how one bad clementine in a bag makes it unusable for a retailer, but the group removed the spoiled fruit and repackages the good items.

Whitewater lockers.JPG
Lockers outside the English language arts classes at Whitewater Middle School display questions related to the food waste project. Ann Doss Helms

The challenges of poverty aren’t theoretical at Whitewater. It’s one of 80 CMS schools where poverty levels are so high it qualifies for federal Title I money.

Lyman says she wants all her students to ask some basic questions: “What do we eat? What do we waste? And how is that a social justice issue?”


An earlier version of this story understated the amount of food thrown in the trash at food their classmates trashed at Whitewater Middle School based on preliminary information. They threw 200 pounds of food in the trash.
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Ann Doss Helms has covered education for the Observer since 2002, long enough to watch a generation of kids go from preK to college. She is a repeat winner of the North Carolina Press Association’s education reporting award.