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Garbage In, Garbage Out

Rethinking what's dished out - and todded away - in school cafeterias


Published May 14, 2003 at 7:58 p.m.

It's 12 noon: Do you know what your children are eating for lunch?

Bonnie Acker, whose daughter, Dia, began attending Edmunds Middle School in Burlington last fall, found out recently. She named it "the brick laborer's lunch:" a fried chicken patty, spaghetti, canned corn, a white roll, vanilla pudding and a baked potato covered with processed cheese. How, she wondered, can a sixth grader eat that much fat and starch in 20 minutes -- the amount of time a middle schooler is allotted for lunch -- and still be awake by the time the final bell rings?

And that was just one meal. Acker, who spent years working on an organic farm, is accustomed to serving her daughter whole grains, fresh produce and other unprocessed foods. So when she heard that some parents don't let their kids eat the cafeteria food, she looked into what else was on her daughter's menu. "I found, to my dismay, that school food is largely processed, low-fiber, high-fat and greatly packaged," Acker recalls. "What you see in our cafeteria is part of an incredibly complex and disturbing reality. Schools around Vermont are serving food that is grown and prepared thousands of miles away and is often in storage for weeks, months or years."

So Acker decided to do something about it. She enlisted the help of anyone who would give her time and advice -- teachers, administrators, other parents, regional food experts and a professor and his students from UVM's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. At first, the goal of the "Edmunds Food Team" was simply to get the kids to eat healthier, locally grown food. But then Acker met Dan Treinis, a new technical education teacher at Edmunds, who told her he was disgusted by the amount of trash the cafeteria produces each day.

Very quickly, a bigger picture came into focus. Acker and Treinis learned that cost restraints, limited availability or restrictive federal guidelines often prevent Burlington schools from buying fresh produce grown in Vermont. They found out that school cafeterias are no longer equipped to cook fresh food and cafeteria staffs don't have the time to prepare it. They discovered that kids don't eat a lot of the food they are served, so much of it gets thrown in the trash. Finally, they realized that because Burlington schools do not separate their waste for composting or recycling, the district is literally throwing away thousands of dollars each year.

But members of the Edmunds Food Team believe they can change all that. Their goal, they say, is to revolutionize the way school meals are grown, prepared and disposed of in Vermont, while at the same time supporting local farmers and saving the school district money. Most importantly, they want Vermont kids to know where their food comes from and where it ends up, so they can make healthier and better informed food choices in the future.

Each day the Edmunds cafeteria offers both breakfast and lunch to nearly 700 students from the middle school and the neighboring Edmunds Elementary School. These are the only nutritious meals many of the kids get all day. "There are hungry children here," says Laura Botte, another Edmunds parent who is working with Acker. "Half of this school is on free or reduced lunches. Half! Which means they eat their breakfast here and they eat their lunch here."

To find out what the kids were actually consuming, Acker and Botte approached the director of Food Services for Burlington Schools. Doug Davis, who is responsible for the 5500 meals served each day to Burlington schoolchildren, was skeptical of conducting yet another food survey that would be sent home with the kids. Invariably, he says, parents write down what they want their kids to eat, instead of asking the kids what they want. "When I first began meeting with the Edmunds food group, my goal was to make it student-oriented," says Davis. "Kids are going to make their own choices when they go through the cafeteria line, so we need to have kids involved in the process."

So in December and January, Acker and Botte went to Edmunds Middle School and asked 274 students what they're eating and what new items they'd like to see on the breakfast menu. Among the most commonly requested foods were granola bars and fresh fruit. What if the cafeteria baked its own granola bars using Macintosh apples grown in Vermont? Acker and Botte reasoned these could be a healthy alternative to the high-fat, high-sugar cookies served now. Plus, they could provide Vermont's apple orchard with a reliable market. In the process, students could learn about how their apples are grown, visit the orchards, meet the farmers and so on.

Acker and Botte began experimenting with their own apple bars made from Vermont products. Needless to say, they didn't have any trouble finding 50 sixth-graders willing to serve as guinea pigs in the tasting process. Every few weeks the parents dropped in to the classrooms with a fresh batch of cookies and asked: Not enough cinnamon? Too much maple syrup? Lose the raisins? Add chocolate chips or icing? As the kids offered their comments, Botte and Acker scribbled down their remarks.

The process has been educational for students and parents alike. Last week 20 kids in Matt Chandler's sixth-grade class taste-tested three different batches of apple bars and gave them mixed reviews. Although the majority of the class agreed that the experimental cookies are "getting closer," the kids admitted they're still not as tasty as the sugary chocolate-chip cookies now served in the cafeteria.

Moreover, Acker and Botte had some trouble finding Vermont apples to use in the last batch. This highlights one of the challenges of buying locally grown produce for the schools, Davis explains. Vermont's short growing season is strongest in the summer, when the schools are not in session. Off-season, it's often more expensive to buy local products. "We can buy potatoes cheaper from Idaho than from Vermont," Davis points out. "I'd love to use more Vermont products, but there are barriers." In fact, despite all the cheese, apples and yogurt produced in state, very little of it finds its way to the Edmunds cafeteria. Even the Vermont milk now served there arrives via Massachusetts.

After investigating apples, the Food Team wanted to know why so many kids were also asking for spring water and sports drinks as breakfast items. Linda Douglas, the school's health assistant, described how kids come into her office every day complaining of headaches, nosebleeds, stomach aches and coughs. Why? They don't drink enough water and get dehydrated, she told the parents. And as the Food Team soon discovered, water is not even served with cafeteria meals.

Federal guidelines prevent students from getting bottled water with their meals. Unlike milk, spring water is considered a "non-nutritious" item by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, so the federal government won't reimburse schools for it. As a result, Davis can't serve it. "Look, it's a wonderful thing that the Edmunds group wants me to work towards a whole-grain fruit bar that's going to be prepared right there at school," he says. "But we can't lose sight of the fact that 40 to 45 percent of the kids rely on those meals every day. So we have to keep the program solvent." Acker and Botte went out and purchased 80 bottles of water themselves.

While Acker and Botte were scrutinizing the edibles that come into the building, tech ed teacher Dan Treinis was working on the food that gets thrown out. "I saw a real need to improve the way trash was dealt with in this cafeteria, because a lot of recyclables and food waste were finding their way into the trash along with everything else," he says. He couldn't understand why the school wasn't separating out compostable and recyclable waste, especially with the Intervale composting program so close by. In fact, the school district spends about $53,000 each year getting rid of its garbage. Surely, Treinis thought, some of that cost could be reduced.

So in March, the Edmunds Food Team conducted a more ambitious survey. For five days a group of parents, teachers and UVM students from Professor Richard Schramm's microeconomics class stood in the cafeteria line and wrote down everything each child took for lunch. Then, as the students dumped their lunch trays, the waste was separated into five categories and weighed: food and napkins, milk cartons, liquid waste, recyclable containers and other trash.

When the UVM "composting team" tallied the data, the results were astounding: More than 90 percent of the refuse didn't have to go to the landfill. In fact, of the 977 pounds of waste produced by the cafeteria in one week, only 96.5 pounds could not be recycled, composted or simply poured down the drain. Local waste hauler All-Cycle has volunteered to pick up all that compostable material from Edmunds' cafeteria for the rest of the school year, at no charge.

Also astounding was how much of the trash was composed of food and beverages -- about 750 pounds of it. On Monday, 54 percent of the mashed potatoes were thrown away; on Tuesday 50 percent of the salads were tossed out. On Wednesday and Friday, one-third of all the food served ended up in the garbage. And the researchers were conservative in their assessments, marking as "thrown away" only those servings that were less than half-eaten.

As Acker explains, one simple solution would be to serve kids appropriately sized portions. "The same portions are often given to 40-pound elementary school kids as a 200-pound eighth-grader," she says. "A whole banana is a lot of fruit for a little kid."

In other instances, the problem was related to how the food is offered. "In the middle school they're serving apples to an entire population where half of them have braces and can't bite into them. In the elementary school, apples are served to children with no teeth," explains Botte. "I saw one poor little first-grader trying to eat an apple with a plastic spoon!"

The Food Team suggested serving the kids cut fruit. But health regulations prevent the cafeteria from serving sliced fruit for the kids to serve themselves. Moreover, the staff is already too busy to cut up fruit for each child. One cafeteria worker at Edmunds wore a pedometer to work and discovered she walks about six miles in one school day.

The Food Team found another solution: They set up a "share table" where children can leave their leftover fruit, as well as sealed milk cartons, granola bars and other uneaten items, for other kids to take home. Cafeteria workers immediately noticed all those items were gone by the end of the day.

The study also has also put a dent in waste disposal costs. Michael Kellogg is a waste reduction specialist with the Chittenden Solid Waste District who advises Burlington schools on garbage management. Although Kellogg cautions against drawing too many conclusions from just one week-long study, he estimates that about 75 to 80 percent of the weight of the cafeteria waste could be eliminated simply by separating the trash the way Edmunds students are now doing.

Additionally, he says, if the school can rid the waste stream of milk cartons, which comprise a huge amount of the volume of trash, the school district could see even more savings. The Intervale composting program is now looking into composting the district's milk cartons as well.

"It seems that when money needs to be saved, the easiest thing is always to cut people or services for the students," says Treinis, the inspiration behind the waste separation program. "But here, the students are saving us money by participating. They're actually saving teachers' jobs. Even though they don't know it or might not even care."

More importantly, he points out, the cafeteria has become more than just a place where students stuff their faces before rushing back to class. "This is now a classroom," Treinis says. "It's informal, but it's still a classroom. Students interact with one another and learn that what they do here has a ripple effect outside this building."

Burlington's director of food services worries that with 11 different school cafeterias district-wide, parents will come to expect 11 different menus -- a situation that would make his job inefficient, costly and unmanageable. But Davis is encouraged by the parents' involvement at Edmunds. He agrees that increasing the quality of cafeteria food will ultimately save money, reduce waste and result in happier, healthier kids. That's a goal everyone should find easy to swallow.

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