Ever since Niles Township High School District 219 started using a new food service vendor in the fall of 2011, the schools have seen increasing amounts of healthy food leaving the kitchens by the front door – and very little waste headed for landfills leaving by the back door.
Instead, all of the district’s kitchen waste is composted, recycled or reused, said Greg Christian of Beyond Green Partners.
Christian, who used to run a high-end catering company in Chicago, began working as a consultant for the district as it conducted its search for a new food service vendor. That move came after about 800 students signed a petition looking for better food in the schools.
Beyond Green works with schools, health care facilities, museums and other institutions that provide food services.
Part of the contract the new vendor, Organic Life, signed said that it would meet Beyond Green’s standards for reducing waste, among other things.
“We wrote a five-year strategy with measurables on a sustainable healthy food system,” said Christian, who started running a zero-waste kitchen in his catering company in 2006. “It went out with their bidding information. Whoever’s the winning bidder – the strategy gets attached to their contract.”
The strategy for reducing waste starts with keeping a scale by the back door of the kitchen and weighing everything that goes out: metal, glass and plastic recyclables, food that goes to a composting contractor, even the miscellaneous twist ties and rubber bands that get donated to elementary schools for craft projects. The schools are close to having zero kitchen waste go to landfills.
Because, Christian said, you have to know how much waste you generate to reduce it. And even if it isn’t going to landfills, it’s best not to generate any more waste than you have to.
To start doing that, Christian said, he asks the food vendors he works with to reduce the amount of packaging they use, and to use reusable containers like plastic or metal milk crates. He also advises cafeteria staff to stop putting food out in individual serving cups. Rather, portions are spooned directly onto student plates. That not only eliminates the waste from the cups, it also saves time.
“We did a study, and school cafeteria workers were spending two hours a day cupping food,” he said.
Reducing waste reduces costs, Christian said, making more money available for what he called “preferable” food.
“Studies show that 40 percent of all food is wasted, and kitchens have 30-40 percent waste overall, not just food,” he said. “It’s a completely inefficient system. Then we can go find efficiencies and bring that money to buy better food. More preferable food costs more.”
Other efficiencies Beyond Green looks for are opportunities to cut down on water and energy use, by, say, limiting the amount of time the dishwasher and grill are turned on, and making sure workers have proper training to do their jobs. They also cut down on the number of entrees offered each day to cut down on labor time and wasted food.