District 623 pilots plastic trays to ditch polystyrene

Lunch time is fun yet fleeting at Harambee Elementary School — the youngest students eat first, and as they ready themselves again for class, the next-grade-up files in.

The daily lunch action at the Roseville Area School — which serves students in kindergarten through sixth-grade — lasts just less than two hours, and it’s a boisterous, well-oiled affair, even with a new addition this year.

Harambee, along with Brimhall and Falcon Heights elementary schools, is part of a district pilot program that’s replaced the school’s former disposable meal-ware with reusable plastic trays and silverware.

That means as students are set to get back to work, there’s a new wrinkle in their lunch routine. First they drop unopened milks and whole pieces of fruit on the share table — hungrier kids can take the extras at will — then the silverware goes in a bin and then they separate their trash from their food waste from their recyclables and turn in their trays.

Angela Richey, the district’s nutrition services supervisor, said the idea of switching from polystyrene trays to reusables had been happening just before she came onto the job three years ago, explaining the time lag was all about logistics.

“It’s not just a matter of buying trays,” she said. The three schools were chosen because they already had working dishwashing machines — though Brimhall’s broke down on the first day of school — since such machines can cost between $30,000 and $40,000.

The pilot program is being funded by a $100,000 Ramsey County public entity innovation grant, said Richey, which supports efforts to reduce the amount of trash produced by government institutions.


Less trash, more recycling

Not even a month into the school year and Harambee first-graders Calumina, Jens and Luis said they like using the trays and that they have the new system down pat. 

Over fish stick tacos with sriracha aioli and a tasty pasta salad — school lunch has evolved — Luis, a 6-year-old St. Paul resident, broke down how to dispose of one’s trash, tray and leftovers.

Said Jens, a 6 and a half-year-old from Roseville, “I like saving the earth.”

The first couple weeks of the new system have shown a decrease in the amount of trash produced at meal time, said Bob Scheiben, Harambee’s building engineer.

He’s already reduced the number of days trash is picked up at the school from two to one, and increased the number of days recycling is collected — a secondary component of the pilot program is an upgraded school-wide recycling push with more clearly-marked bins for non-trash items.

In all, Scheiben expects 500-700 fewer bags of trash to leave the school each year — a lot of that volume was cafeteria trays — and the lack of food waste in said bags has greatly lightened the load.

“It’s a savings on your back,” he said.

The food waste collection is an easy sell to the kids. Each day they place their leftovers in “hog barrels,” which are transported to a farm that uses the foodstuffs as pig feed. The farm itself supplies ingredients for district meals.

Donna Gingery is in her first year as the school’s activity director, and she also facilitates the end-of-meal trash-leftovers-recyclables drop area.

She runs a tight ship — “I watch everybody,” she said — and noted that while it’s easy for kids to miss a step in the process, they’re into it.

“I think they like it,” Gingery said.


Into more schools

Members of the community are cautiously pleased with the pilot program.

Kerry Fine, a Roseville resident and member of the League of Women Voters Roseville Area, spoke before the Roseville Area School Board two years ago on behalf of the League to highlight the district’s need to ditch the disposable trays.

She said she was prompted to speak up after her neighbor, then a first-grader at Falcon Heights Elementary, brought home polystyrene remnants from her school breakfast. 

“Styrofoam is the worst thing there is,” said Fine, explaining that her two children each attended 12 years of school in the Roseville district and “they never had anything like that.”

Though she said she was disappointed and felt blown off by the district’s response two years ago, Fine said she was pleasantly surprised when her now third-grade neighbor reported that her school had switched to plastic trays — the 8-year-old even wrote her a letter celebrating the change.

Fine said environmental stewardship at the school level teaches students the “best lessons” and said she would love to see the use of plastic trays to go district wide, along with a greater focus at all district facilities on recycling.

Richey said she plans to make the change for the entire district, though it’s going to happen in small steps instead of one giant leap — she said she hopes to buy one new dish machine each year, as funding allows. Making the switch to plastic trays will also offer long-term cost savings as well, she said, kicking in a couple years after the trays are bought.

For now, Richey said, she has a four-year plan to get the trays into all of the district’s elementary schools. After that it’s on up to the middle and high schools. 

There’s a rationale behind the roll out. For whatever reason, she said, “It’s easier to teach a kindergartner than an 18-year-old senior to do their tray.”

By the time the trays are in all the schools, she said, there should be enough students who grew up on the program to make it really effective, and despite funding still being up in the air, she was clear about her intentions.

Said Richey, “We’re going to make this happen.”


-Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813.

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