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Waste-Free Lunches

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Waste-Free Lunches

   Two years ago, Chantal Currid, the volunteer Go Green coordinator for Alameda’s Edison Elementary School, became concerned about the amount of waste being generated in the school’s lunchroom. So she started encouraging children to bring “waste-free lunches” — or lunches that would produce no trash. The program started simply — a few parent volunteers talked to children about less wasteful ways of packing their lunches (e.g., substituting re-usable plastic containers for plastic sandwich bags). And they encouraged children to make the change by taking photos of those who did so and posting them on a bulletin board.
   “The kids loved having their pictures displayed, and it inspired others to make the change, too,” Currid says. “And now it’s really taken off, especially on days that we’re especially promoting the idea.”
   Edison School’s waste-free lunch program is part of a trend that is sweeping the Bay Area — and the rest of the country. Fueled by concerns about overflowing landfills, children’s health, and family budgets, the movement aims to help children, parents and schools become more conscious of how something as simple as a brought-from-home lunch can affect the global environment.
   “When we first started this in 2001, no one knew what we were talking about,” says Amy Hemmert, president and co-founder of Obentec Inc., a Santa Cruz–based business that promotes waste-free lunches (and sells Laptop Lunch portable food containers). “We’d say ‘waste-free lunch’ and people would say, ‘huh?’ Now a lot more people understand the concept.”

The Problem With Modern Lunches

   While it may seem efficient — maybe even hygienic — to use plastic baggies, juice boxes, disposable water bottles, plastic cutlery and paper napkins for a child’s lunch, such materials create a veritable mountain of trash over a child’s school career. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website, the average school-aged child generates about 67 pounds of lunch waste per year. Just looking at plastic baggies alone — if you use three per lunch per day, you’ll go through about 550 per child, per school year, or more than 7,000 between your child’s first year of kindergarten and his graduation from high school. And each
of those bags, by the way, will take between 500 and 1,000 years to degrade in the landfill, reports Slate.com in the article “Will My Plastic Bag Still Be Here in 2507?”

Reduce, Re-use, Recycle
   Enter the waste-free lunch solution. A waste-free lunch is simply one in which the food is packaged in reusable materials, like plastic and insulated metal containers and cloth napkins. Proponents of waste-free lunches eschew single-serving, pre-packaged foods (think packs of crackers, chip bags, applesauce and juice boxes), along with paper napkins and disposable plastic cutlery. (Buying snacks and drinks in large packages — and then dividing them into reusable containers — is both cheaper and less wasteful.) And each night a parent or guardian unpacks the lunch, washes the containers and uses them again the next day.
   The environmental benefits are impressive. A typical waste-free lunch contains 89 percent less waste than a lunch packed with single-use items. And every plastic bag, juice bag and cracker wrapper that your child doesn’t use is another one that doesn’t end up in a landfill for several hundred years — or blowing into the ocean where it threatens marine life.
   But packing a waste-free lunch also reaps cost savings both for parents and school districts. In fact, a lunch packed with reusable items is about 65 percent less expensive than a lunch with pre-packaged materials, according to Obentec Inc. And when school districts have less garbage to dispose of, they save money in garbage disposal costs. (Many local school districts are also embarking on recycling and “green waste” programs now, too, to divert as much waste as possible away from landfills and toward more beneficial uses, including composting.)
   The other benefit is nutrition. When made with care, food brought from home tends to be healthier than pre-packaged food (less salt, less sugar and less transfat) and is certainly healthier than cafeteria food. (One study by the American College of Cardiology that was released in March 2010 found that one in three middle school students who ate cafeteria lunches were obese or overweight.) The link between homemade lunches and health is so clear, in fact, that Obentec provides a Nutritious Lunch Ideas booklet with its lunch boxes as well as on its website.
   And of course a waste-free lunch gets your child in the habit of conserving. “We don’t do parent education at Edison,” Currid says. “We teach the children and they go home and teach their parents.”

Helping All Kids Get Involved

   In schools with high numbers of children receiving free or reduced lunches, a waste-free campaign can appear unfair. Many school lunch programs use a lot of packaging, much of it unrecyclable. But that’s where parents and districts can put more pressure on the school lunch providers, Currid says. “Some of them want to be more green. It’s just figuring out how to do it economically.”
   Hemmert notes that children receiving school lunches can also be included in waste-free lunch efforts by letting them get involved in recycling or composting efforts or allowing them to put unopened food that they don’t want in a common area to share with others. “The idea is to help them find ways to reduce waste in the lunchroom,” she says. “There are plenty of ways to get involved.”

The ever-groovy, ever-green Bay Area is something of a Mecca for waste-free lunch organizations and retailers. The following are all relatively local and offer products free of vinyl, lead or BPA and plastic.

Obentec Inc.: Based in Santa Cruz, this organization is totally devoted to waste-free lunches and its website includes tips on starting your own program, success stories and nutritious (yummy) lunch ideas.

ECO Lunchbox: The founder of this company is a Lafayette mom, Sandra Ann Harris, who has a line of stainless steel reusables. The line also includes cotton bags, bamboo and stainless utensils and cloth napkins. www.ecolunchboxes.com

This is a Bay Area company that makes
organic cotton kid-sized (and kid-colored) napkins. www.fabkins.com

Citizenpip: This company offers insulated lunchboxes and food jars, as well as reusable utensil sets, and insulated food jars. www.citizenpip.com

Container Store:
Two of the cheapest options for lunch kits are The Container Store’s Klip-It Lunch Cube ($4.99) and the Quaddie Slimline Lunchbox ($9.99), both of which can hold several different kinds of foods in separate compartments. www.containerstore.com

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