On November 2, the Urban School Food Alliance joined Cafeteria Culture and Cool School Cafe in hosting the first ever Plastic Free Lunch Day USA, a nationwide initiative to reduce plastic foodware and packaging in school cafeterias across the country. The event was a success, with hundreds of schools nationwide transforming their lunch lines for the day to help eliminate single-use plastic. As we reflect on the stories they shared and look towards the next nationwide Plastic Free Lunch Day celebration, we hope the experience will encourage organizations, schools, and individuals to continue taking small actions towards a healthier future for students and the environment.
Here are just a few of the ways that our members are working towards a more sustainable school food system with strategies you can use to keep the momentum from Plastic Free Lunch Day going:
Rather than individually wrapping or packaging items place servings directly on students’ plates. When serving handheld entrees like pizza, sandwiches, chicken nuggets, and burritos, avoid pre-packing items in plastic containers or plastic wrap. For fruits like apples, oranges, or bananas, reduce the use of serving cups on the lunch line by placing the whole fruit directly on the plate.
If your schools offer a salad bar, serve vegetables that students can eat with their hands rather than leafy greens. Students love the variety and independence of self-serve options. Adding finger foods like bell pepper strips, cucumber slices, or cherry tomatoes to the salad bar can add excitement and help eliminate the need for plastic cups or containers. This also means less prep for school nutrition staff!
San Diego Unified School District
During Plastic Free Lunch Day, San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) transformed its salad bars into “dipper bars” by updating the menu to include handheld vegetables like carrot sticks. Instead of providing single-serve cups or packets, dips and salad dressings were portioned directly onto compostable plates for students to enjoy with their selection. Students seemed to enjoy a new variety of finger foods at the salad bars! SDUSD replaced pre-packaged entrée salads with veggie burgers wrapped in paper to eliminate the need for plastic clamshell containers.
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Do not wrap items in plastic wrap or food grade bags. If a food item(s) has to be wrapped, use aluminum foil rolls and wrap in bulk instead of foil sheets when possible.
Store cutlery kits or utensil packets out of sight at the POS and only offer them to students who ask for them. If cutlery kits are positioned on the line alongside everyday items like napkins and milk, students may grab them before realizing they don’t need them. By providing them to students upon request, cutlery is still easily accessible, but you may prevent unused utensils from going into the trash.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools
In 2019, as part of Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ (MDCPS) Lean and Green initiatives to reduce waste, the district removed plastic straws from its cutlery kits as cities throughout the country move toward straw-free communities. Despite challenges and delays, MDCPS worked directly with the cutlery kit supplier to successfully eliminate the plastic straws from production. This change is estimated to remove approximately 45 million plastic straws from the waste stream annually. MDCPS then worked with student groups and clubs focused on sustainability to create messaging and marketing materials to communicate the change.
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Incorporate Plastic Free Lunch Day into your school nutrition promotion cycle. You don’t have to wait until our next public event to support Plastic Free Lunch Day! Celebrate regularly, like you may already for promotions such as Harvest of the Month or Meatless Monday, or to strengthen menu initiatives for holidays such as Earth Day or World Oceans Day. The repeat actions will help reinforce sustainability practices and healthy habits for students, and have a large impact on total reduction of plastic waste in your schools and district.
New York City Department of Education
The Plastic Free Lunch concept was developed by Cafeteria Culture and a group of fifth graders at P.S. 15 Patrick F. Daly Magnet School for the Arts in Brooklyn. After studying plastic pollution for two years, the students discovered that their lunches contained a large amount of single-use plastic. In response, the students designed and carried out a single plastic free lunch day that reduced total school lunch waste by 99% and eliminated 558 plastic waste items. Now, participating New York City schools have Plastic Free Lunch Day on a monthly basis by serving handheld student.
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By making incremental changes to reduce plastic, you have a tremendous impact on the environment and our food systems. Learn more about Plastic Free Lunch Day at plasticfreelunch.org and we hope you continue to take action in your schools and community to support the mission.