“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” – James Baldwin
On January 14, 2013, Kermit McKenzie Junior High School in Guadalupe, California, switched from disposable Styrofoam lunch trays to durable composites. As Orfalea Foundation School Food Chef Instructor Kirsten Criswell put it, “today nearly 300 Styrofoam trays did not go to the landfill, nor will they tomorrow or the next day, or any day in the future.”
Criswell continues, “It was wonderful to see how quickly this happened, which shows that many administrators and staff wanted this. The change is measurable, produces lasting benefits for this district, and it also sends a powerful message to the students and the entire school community.”
The school was willing to expend extra effort and budget up front to make a lasting change for the better. Criswell explains: “They got ready for the roll-out by making sure that the dish machine was serviced and operational, having the durable trays washed and zoned for service, and by scheduling extra support staff so that current staff would not be overwhelmed. Café Manager Ursula Guerrero and the entire McKenzie staff were well prepared for the roll-out and the team worked together to support each other.”
The school board and District Superintendent Ed Cora were instrumental in initiating the return to durables, and Principal Sal Reynoso also played a pivotal role in the introduction. Before the roll-out, he met with each grade level to inform the students of the positive changes in the café. He took the time to set expectations and this helped smooth the transition.
Reynoso grinned as he praised the enthusiasm among his students. “All students were excited to transition to the durable trays; yes, even the 8th graders.” Communication, as always, was essential to successful implementation. “I held an assembly and explained to the students that we would transition from the disposable trays (holding it up for students) to durable trays (holding it up against the disposable trays, which are about half the size) and the students began to clap and cheer with excitement. In fact, a couple of 8th grade students said, ‘I wish we would have had these when I first started here!’ I am extremely proud of the patience and respect the KMJH Bobcats have shown each other. The students wait in line to clear their trays and then stack the trays nicely for the cafeteria crew. The Food Service Department, Gail, and Kirsten facilitated a smooth transition to the durable trays and helped it to be a positive experience for the students.”
One student told Reynoso, “My mom used these same trays when she went to school here,” which really hit home, since Reynoso himself also used the trays as a student. This turns out to be another important aspect of the transition: The trays and dishwashing equipment were already at the school, but had been sidelined during the nation’s love affair with the convenience and false economy of disposable products. Today, schools with dishwashers have the option to return to durables, and others have the option of compostable or recyclable trays. All it takes is the kind of leadership shown by Superintendent Cora, Principal Reynoso, and the Food Service team, who recognize the truth of James Baldwin’s quotation: our children will imitate us, so we are always teaching, for better or worse.