Reduce, recycle, reuse and rot in El Cerrito and Richmond schools

A second grade student at Fairmont Elementary displays some of the tomatoes from their school garden. (Photo by Sara Lafleur-Vetter)

A second grade student at Fairmont Elementary displays some of the tomatoes from their school garden. (Photo by Sara Lafleur-Vetter)

To reduce waste in the future, one Bay Area school is taking lessons from the past.

“When I was in elementary school, we had a kitchen staff and all our food was served on these melamine divided trays with sections in them and everything was cooked on site,” said Paula White, project coordinator of the Wastematters Project, a school trash-reduction initiative. “So we didn’t have anything to throw away.”

Gone are the days of lunch ladies and divided plastic trays. In the Fairmont Elementary School cafeteria in El Cerrito, which serves children mainly from El Cerrito and Richmond, lunches come in airplane-like packaging. Meals arrive from an outside facility. The food is shipped, sometimes heated, and served in the same packaging. In addition to a main entrée, students choose two to three other items, each encased in its own plastic wrap, piling all of this onto a cardboard tray. Afterward students drop it all in the trash.

“The way we are feeding the students in a lot of the schools in California is not very environmentally friendly,” said Juliana Gonzalez, Wastematters program manager. She suspects that many schools closed their kitchens, probably due to the costs.

But a new project aims to usher in a waste management transformation. This month, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded the Watershed Project, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting East Bay watersheds and ecosystems, a $30,000 grant to educate children and their community about recycling, reusing and composting.

The two-year project, called Wastematters, is kicking off at Fairmont Elementary School, which will likely absorb about 80 percent of the grant. Wastematters may expand to two or three more schools in the East Bay.

Watershed staff members said Fairmont Elementary was the best choice for the pilot project. Unlike schools in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, Fairmont lacked an institutionalized trash separation system. In addition, the community and administration were extremely enthusiastic about the program.

Over two-thirds of Fairmont Elementary students get subsidized breakfasts and lunches, which creates another kind of waste. “The food that comes for the students in the subsidized program often goes from the truck straight to the trash,” said Gonzalez.

“So we thought it was a good place to do a pilot [project] – to see which were the difficulties that we would encounter in other schools if we were to suggest this as a model that could be extended to the rest of the school district.”

Starting this month, Fairmont Elementary students will be taught the four Rs – reduce, recycle, reuse, and rot, with each grade from kindergarten through sixth focusing on one of those Rs.

Gonzalez said that the new curriculum and waste collection system “will divert at least 50 percent of the trash the first year into either green waste or recycling and we’re hoping to get to 90 percent by the second year.”

Beyond the basics of recycling and composting, the curriculum will also educate students about healthy watersheds, marine debris, climate change, and the benefits of growing and eating locally.

“The whole goal of this pilot project is to develop a curriculum that will then have different emphases at different grade levels so that once the child has gone through all seven years of the curriculum, they’ll really have a thorough grounding in these concepts,” said White.

A combination of in-class lessons, outside gardening, and community projects will introduce Fairmont students to the way in which human systems tend to mimic natural systems.

Students will sell some of the produce from the school garden at a farmer’s market, hold a rummage sale to reinforce the concept of reusing materials, and visit a recycling center to witness the fruits of their painstaking sorting.

Cafeteria waste is the next frontier, White said, but that’s a bigger challenge.

“Because it’s federally funded school lunch dollars… I suspect that we’re talking about a nation-wide kind of machine that would need to be attacked.”

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