For the past two years, 1,256 styrofoam school lunch trays — much less than what most schools use in a day — have hung suspended from an acacia tree in the garden located in the middle of a school campus, silently gathering grime. But most definitely not decaying. Strung up by and for the students of Thomas Starr King Middle School, they are there as a reminder of how much trash the trays generate every day. As of Aug. 23, with the announcement that the LAUSD has changed over to compostable boxes (still filled with their nutritionally questionable lunches), that art piece is instead a testament to the power of children to enact change.
In 2010, Enrich LA Volunteer Garden Manager Brian Miller was working with teachers to integrate the focal-point garden into daily lessons. They decided to have students spend one week carrying around any non-compostable versus compostable waste they were creating as a visual lesson. At the end of the week, the 6th graders weighed what they had been schlepping and calculated how much they were personally and collectively contributing to California landfills, instead of turning back into soil. While they had been initially focusing on the impact of re-using water bottles, the kids decided that their largest contribution to the trash, instead of the earth, was their lunch trays.
During a susequent field trip to a landfill, the students also learned that while styrofoam is recyclable — isn't recycled in Los Angeles County and has been banned in all city buildings since 2009. It's not recycled because it's not cost efficient. And there is no secondary market for used foam. Congress, please take note.
The solution that the kids came up with was to buy their own personal lunch trays. To fund that plan, they sold herbs from their organic garden at the Barnsdall Farmers Market. The plan worked, they raised the money — and every kid was given a tray to bring to the cafeteria every day. But it didn't work out exactly as planned. The trays were being lost or thrown out and so the idea was scrapped.
So the young environmentalists began writing letters to the school board, local council people and other school administrators, asking for an alternate solution to the land-fill-filling problem.
Their small but loud voices were heard, and on Aug. 23, L.A. City Councilmember Paul Koretz and LAUSD officials announced the end of the use of non-compostable trays. Instead they will use a pressed-board box, at a savings of three to four cents each, or more than $5 million dollars annually. Looks like the kids weren't the only ones doing math.
Follow Squid Ink on Twitter @laweeklyfood. Rachael Narins volunteers at Thomas Starr King Middle School as a Master Gardener and the after-school garden chef instructor. Follow her and the garden on the Farm King blog.