There is Such a Thing as a Free Lunch–Waste Free, That Is

Laptop Lunch Box

My daughter started kindergarten last week and next week my son is off to preschool for the first time. We’ll all look back on these days fondly sometime in the future, but for now, I’m having some typical Mommy back-to-school blues. In the interest of combating those blues, I decided to focus on some greens–specifically in the form of green tips related to schools and students. In this post I’ll discuss how to reduce waste associated with school lunches; look for more discussions on green ideas and examples for K-12 and beyond in the days to come.

The Gear

For some online guides to reusable and eco-friendly lunch gear, check out the following:

  • Mother Nature Network: Check out this recent blog post with lots of suggestions for eco-friendly lunch gear that will appeal to older kids as well as tiny tots.

The list below provides other specific ideas. Bear in mind that even though I provide notes on personal experience with a few of these items, all descriptions and links are provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as endorsements by me, GLRPPR, or GLRPPR’s parent organization, the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC).

  • Laptop Lunches: My two little ones are pleased with their new Laptop lunch boxes. This was one of the first companies I became aware of that was selling eco-friendly, reusable lunch gear when I first started learning about zero waste lunches several years ago (before my little ones were born). Their products incorporate recycled fabric and plastic, and are free of lead, phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
  • Fit & Fresh: This company offers a variety of BPA-free reusable containers for food and drink. Since my son is a huge fan of macaroni and cheese and both kids love soup, especially in colder weather, I have a few of the hot lunch bowls that include a folding spoon and handle on the lids. On days when they want some warm leftovers for lunch, they can carry these bowls instead of their other lunch boxes. Be advised though, that despite testing whether or not my kids could open these unassisted, my daughter and I both had a bit of trouble getting the lid off when she packed soup to school a few days ago. Small hands may find these bowls unwieldy at times, so this might be a better option for older kids.
  • Thermos: I’ve noticed during back-to-school shopping that this veteran manufacturer of products to transport food and drink has begun marketing lunch gear that is BPA-free.
  • BebelooshMini: I recently read about Elena Berlo’s reusable snack and sandwich bags, made of organic cotton and recycled hemp with Velcro closures, on the Inhabitots blog. For dry snacks and sandwiches, washable wrappings such as this are a good alternative to disposable plastic bags or plastic wrap.
  • Wrap-N-Mat: When I bought a set of these reusable food wraps/placemats/napkins for my own lunches years ago (again, pre-kiddos), I had to order them online because they weren’t available locally. On a recent trip to a chain grocery store, I saw some hanging up like so many other small “impulse buy” type items peppered throughout the store aisles and was amazed at how consumer awareness can change product availability. This is also a lesson in checking your local stores rather than relying solely upon “retail locators” on web sites; the Wrap-N-Mat site says there aren’t any stores within 25 miles of my zip code that carry their products, but I’ve seen them with my own eyes.

Beyond these few suggestions, there are some common-sense ideas, such as including cloth napkins instead of paper (if you’re inclined to use a sewing machine, consider making your own from old sheets, clothes, etc.), sending real silverware instead of plastic, and any way you can eliminate disposable items and/or reduce packaging in your child’s lunch (or your own, for that matter). If disposable plastic bags are simply the best option in a given situation, teach your little ones to bring those back home for washing, just as would any other plastic container. We have done so in our home, and you would be surprised at how long they actually last for reuse. Special drying racks are marketed to encourage this behavior, but honestly, you can just use your existing drying rack–pop them over one of the glass holders, or slip them over some of your drying silverware to dry.

The Process

If you’re a parent, educator or administrator interested in implementing a waste-free lunch program at your school, check out This site describes such a program that was created as a grassroots efforts by some concerned parents. Their waste-free lunch program started when a group of parents noticed how much trash the students were generating during snack time and at lunch. The site provides how-to tips to create a program, resources and success stories. Be advised that the links to lunch kits will simply direct you to the Laptop Lunches web site, since two of the moms involved in the grassroots effort described started their own company as a result, making Laptop Lunch kits.

Also check out this somewhat dated, though still inspirational report, Best Practices for Food Recovery and Gleaning in the National School Lunch Program: SY 1998-1999.” It describes how the school districts used USDA grant funds to recover food from their cafeterias and donate it to the needy. Included is information on systems to recover, store, and donate the recovered food and how schools formed partnerships with local non-profit agencies. It also illustrates how school districts were able to identify and overcome obstacles to developing their programs. Finally, it shows how students can take an active role in this effort, and how food recovery and gleaning can be integrated into a school’s curriculum.

Food waste will always be generated in cafeterias to some degree–is there a composting program in place at your child’s school? If not, check out this manual from Connecticut, this fact sheet from Tennessee, this Cornell University web site (that includes a related online book to incorporate science inquiry with high school students) and this article from the April 2008 edition of BioCycle for inspiration and tips on how to create such a program. Even if the entire school is not involved in a composting program, individual classrooms can do composting projects with vermicomposting (see the Greening Schools web site for more suggestions on this topic).

The Food

Consider the most important part of your child’s lunch–the food itself–and how or if it contributes to lessons regarding sustainability or waste reduction. My kids help out in our own garden and know how to compost–this means they see food as something that someone works to obtain that isn’t meant to be wasted (though they are still kids and finicky eaters sometimes!). The more children know about the process of producing the food we eat, the more they will value it. Does your child’s school have a garden program? Check out the Chez Pannisse Foundation web site , the Edible School Yard and the National Gardening Association’s Kids Gardening site for ideas. If you have a bit of yard, or even a sunny windowsill for potted plants, consider growing something edible with your kids. Helping them connect to their food will help them understand why they should care about food waste.

Also consider talking to them about the benefits of local foods and eating things in season. Local Harvest can help you find farmers’ markets. Sustainable Table and Food Routes are other sites that can help in discussing issues surrounding food production and shipping with your kids. Engage them now in considering what it takes to get the food they consume and what actions are sustainable. Reducing the waste involved in our meals doesn’t just mean using cloth napkins–we need to consider agricultural methods, consumer demand, resources used in the transportation of food, and other factors. Food is a system, and learning sustainable behaviors starts with learning to think in terms of systems. You are your child’s best teacher when it comes to such worldview issues.

Share your thoughts–tell us about your waste-free lunch ideas and favorite resources in the comments section of this post.

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