Colorado Springs schools and the compostable tray

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Thinking back to high school, I remember feeling a little too smug as a brown-paper-bag holder sitting in the cafeteria among my peers who were munching down the mystery menu-item of the day.

All exaggeration aside, I remained skeptical of the food served, hugely lacking in nutritional and wholesome value. Sure, it came at a reasonable price, but was that a good enough reason?

To make matters worse, the grub often came on subpar foam trays. As it turns out, though, an initiative to do away with these wasteful plates is making waves across the nation. Thanks to the Urban School Food Alliance, compostable plates may soon be all the rage and plastic foam lunch trays a thing of the past, rather than landfills. 

As part of the alliance, public schools systems in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, Miami and Orlando teamed up in July 2012 at a nutrition conference in Denver in hopes of persuading suppliers to offer environment-friendly products at a fair price, reads an article in The New York Times.

As these public schools make headway in the much-needed paradigm shift in nutrition and sustainability, it begs the question of what schools in the Colorado Springs region are doing. Turns out Lewis Palmer School District 38 had looked into this but the cost was exuberant, says Katie Dubois, nutritional services supervisor. "If the cost would go down and if more people are willing to use it, I would do so as well."

Steve Parsons, Academy District 20's director of food operations, says: "It’s something we’re researching right now. We switched back about four years ago from Styrofoam, five-compartment trays and went with a washable basket. We were able to reduce by thousands of cases. We're eventually going to switch to a biodegradable, fiber tray, made out of a pulp. It's a better product for the environment."

As it turns out, Manitou Springs School District 14 has looked into these trays as well, but being that they are three times as much as foam, they would kill the budget, says Paula Faucette, food service director. Trying to be environmentally conscious, the school uses hard trays for breakfast, a paper product for the middle school and high school and only uses foam at lunch in the elementary school.

Colorado Springs School District 11's director of food and nutrition services, Rick Hughes, a leader in implementing sustainable practices, says the use of compostable trays would add another $300,000 annually to the department. "We just can't afford something like that," he says.

However: "We did purchase a StyroGenie unit [in Jenkins Middle School] that has been through EPA tests," Hughes says. "It melts Styrofoam into a plastic block that can then be reused for other things: stepping stones, garden paving stones, building blocks or can be recycled by someone who recycles polystyrene."

Though serving kids healthier food is up next on the Urban School Food Alliance's agenda, it goes to show that people like Hughes are already ahead of the game. Founder of the Good Food Project, which prohibits highly processed food or food with additives, he has revamped the district's food system to serve kids healthy, home-cooked, local food, while educating them on how to eat healthy, reads an article in Foodservice Director.

“The journey we’ve been on has taken five years,” Hughes says in the article. “Has it been difficult and challenging and required us to be uncomfortable and think differently? Absolutely. Is it the right thing to do? No doubt."

D20's Steve Parsons agrees: "Some people want it to happen over night, but there is a process involved. Everything is a process — baby steps."

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