Schools Ditch Sporks, Slowly Discard Plastic-Wrapped Meals

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Although Styrofoam trays and plastic straws have been banished from its cafeterias, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) still relies on individually packaged meals and disposable utensils for the bulk of the 6.8 million meals it serves annually.  

According to SFUSD estimates, the school system generates some 6.3 million gallons of landfill-bound trash, 9.4 million gallons of compost, and 12.4 million gallons of recycling every year. A significant amount of that entire “service volume” – a measurement of the total size of trash, recycling, and compost collected by Recology – originates at mealtimes. 

Based on SFUSD data, the District “diverts” – doesn’t landfill – approximately 66 percent of its solid waste stream, sending this material to be recycled or composted. Waste diversion is calculated by adding together the volume of recycling and compost and dividing that by the amount of all trash, recycling, and compost. 

By 2025, the District wants to avoid landfilling 85 percent of school-produced waste. According to Student Nutritional Services (SNS), the body tasked with overseeing food provision to the equivalent of a mid-size American city, starting this academic year the plastic-wrapped spork packet, long a fixture of school meals, is to be replaced by bulk recyclable, single-use plastic utensils and individual napkins, free of plastic sheathing. This change, according to SNS, will provide a better dining experience for students, and is expected to reduce the amount of plastic waste.

SFUSD is the City’s largest meal provider, serving more than 37,000 daily repasts to 57,000 students. Most of this food is provided through a contract with Oakland-based Revolution Foods. Photographs from Revolution Foods’ website, as well as a 2019 San Francisco Chronicle article, depict meals resembling what one might expect to be served on an airplane: a thin-walled cardboard tray containing a plastic-wrapped hot meal in a plastic container with a small side dish in a smaller cardboard tray and a piece of fruit. According to SFUSD, the plastic used by Revolution Foods is “recyclable when clean” and BPA-free.

This past Spring, concerns about food quality and taste led the school board to initially decline to renew Revolution’s contract, only to reup it on a subsequent vote. The San Francisco Chronicle cited price considerations and a lack of alternative suppliers given the volume of daily meals as the reasons behind the ultimate approval. The District’s “Good Food Purchasing Policy” which the SNS blog described as “a values-based procurement program rooted in five standards: Local Economies, Environmental Sustainability, Animal Welfare, Valued Workforce, and Nutrition,” also makes attracting other food vendors challenging.

In a 2019 blog post, SFUSD reported that it “more than doubled the amount of in-house freshly prepared meals served [in the 2018-2019 school] year.” In the same column the District stated, “Using General Obligation bonds, we will update school kitchen facilities and cafeterias to accept and serve bulk meals. By 2028, our goal is to build a state-of-the-art central kitchen that can produce high quality student-vetted meals for the entire District and eliminate more than 80 percent of pre-packaged meals.”

“We currently serve meals on 100 percent reusable dishes at 13 of our Early Education Sites,” Laura Dudnick of SFUSD said. “This fall, SFUSD plans to launch our first regional kitchen at the McAteer Campus, which serves both The Academy and Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. This new kitchen will include a dishwasher and reusable dishes and [cloth] napkins.” 

Reuse requires adequate storage space, plumbing, and dishwashing machines to handle large volumes of utensils and dishware, which most SFUSD schools don’t have. “All kitchens at schools with bond construction projects will include plumbing to allow for dishwashers in the future,” Dudnick said.

The District won’t be widely deploying reusable utensils and dishware anytime soon. “We are not moving towards all reusable dishes at this time.” said Lauren Heumann of SFUSD. “While it would be amazing to do, the infrastructure upgrades and the labor costs associated with them is quite high. We are instead using our resources to upgrade our serving lines to be able to serve meals family style. This means removing all of the plastic wrapping. Meals will be served on compostable plates.”

A tour of Potrero Hill streets on the evening before garbage was scheduled to be collected revealed several pickers wending their way through the rows of green, blue and black bins, quietly lifting lids and extracting salable cans and bottles. While the trash and recycling bins were locked behind a gate, none of the five green compost bins belonging to Daniel Webster Elementary School were filled to capacity. Several bins contained non-compostable items, including plastic wrappers and beverage cups, though these may have been discarded by passersby rather than by the school. 

In this respect the waste diversion percentage, when calculated by “service volume,” can paint a misleading and overly positive environmental picture, by disregarding a bin’s actual contents and fill-level, as well as by ignoring overall changes in solid waste stream levels.