By Meggan Davis
What does it really mean to have a sustainable, zero-waste school meal program? The answer to this question is one that the team at Mundo Verde, a bilingual public charter school in the Truxton Circle neighborhood of NW Washington DC, is trying to unwind.
Here’s a look at Mundo Verde’s meal program and what they’re doing to make it a sustainability success:
The school plans their lunch menu eight weeks at a time, enabling them to craft meals that take a root-to-leaf approach in using up the ingredients that they purchase. On a Meatless Monday in September, I paid a visit to the school’s small scratch kitchen and witnessed the organized chaos that churns out around 650 meals a day. The meat-free meal of the day is served using reusable trays, cups, and silverware, eliminating disposables such as plastic cutlery that clutter most school cafeterias in DC. I get a taste: they serve me a quinoa burger with roasted sweet potatoes, edamame, and melon. It’s a treat.
Designing these menus can be a painstaking process–their in-house nutritionist, chefs, and Food Initiative and Wellness Manager, Kelsey Weisgerber, collaborate to ensure that the meals will meet strict federal nutrition guidelines, appeal to students, and cut down on waste. Though this long-range meal planning can sometimes require minor adjustments (an unpopular gazpacho may become tomato soup), it enables the team to plan for overlapping ingredients, minimizing waste and spending.
With the goal of being fully zero waste, the kitchen continually adjusts orders to minimize the number of extra servings. Because student absences and other unpredictable variables make precise meal planning extremely difficult, Mundo Verde has a plan in place to ensure that, when there are extra meals, they won’t go to waste. Once the pulse of the lunch line has died down, any extra servings will be eaten by staff or packaged up for delivery to SOME (So Others Might Eat), a non-profit that serves DC’s poor and homeless populations just around the block from the school. This strategy provides a benefit to the community and keeps nutritious food from being disposed of, a practice that brings the school closer to zero waste and also cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions from food waste.
Because Mundo Verde doesn’t have a cafeteria, students eat in their classrooms where Weisgerber and the school’s operations team have designed an innovative waste sorting process. Students scrape their food scraps into a compost bucket and place their dishes in a bin to be returned to the kitchen and washed. Chefs Dot and Dale use this plate waste from classrooms as a measure of success–high amounts of plate waste may indicate that a menu item was unpopular with students, while little or no waste signals that a meal item was a hit. By examining what students did and didn’t eat, they can make adjustments to upcoming meals to improve student consumption
Once plate waste has been reviewed and recorded, all organic waste from the kitchen and classrooms is collected by local hauler Fat Worm Compost to be processed at a facility in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
The school is also continually evaluating how to make the meal program more accessible for their families, reflecting a shift towards the holistic view of sustainability that can also be seen in the Sustainable DC 2.0 Plan. At $4.75 a serving, the cost of a meal at Mundo Verde is relatively high; meals range from $2.80–$3.30 at DC Public Schools (DCPS) and are free for all students at the approximately three-quarters of DCPS schools where most students’ families meet USDA income eligibility requirements. Despite the price, families are choosing to participate in the program–around 70% of families ineligible for a discount elect to pay the $4.75 fee for lunch. Mundo Verde also has multiple strategies in place to support family access to meals. As a result, on an average day, 46 families receive breakfast for free and 71 families receive lunch for free or for a discount. These strategies include:
Free breakfast for any families who want it (regardless of income)
26% of families (those deemed economically disadvantaged through national guidelines) receive a free meal through support from the national school lunch program
School-funded discounts for families that do not meet national eligibility guidelines for free meals but do meet income eligibility for the state of Alaska (a higher threshold)
School-funded Hardship Program to support families with temporary needs
Mundo Verde smartly manages their waste in accordance with the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy, maximizing the benefits of their program for students, their community, and the environment. There’s a lot to learn from their efforts…
What can other schools in DC do to reduce waste and improve the sustainability of their meal programs?
- Measure waste and adjust your menu: Keeping track of what your kitchen is wasting and what students don’t eat can help to improve ordering, increase student consumption and nutrition intake, and will enable smart meal planning or policy adjustments (such as Offer vs. Serve) that reduce waste.
- Create community connections and recover food: Connect with a local hunger organization and deliver uneaten school food to this partner in order to feed hungry people in DC. Schools are protected from liability under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996.
- Collect compost: Set up a waste sorting station to separate organic waste wherever food is disposed of, and sign up for organic waste collection with a qualified hauler. Almost all food and plant material can be turned back into soil at an industrial composting facility, including plastic-free paper products, meat, citrus, dairy, and bones.
- Consider Cost. The price of a sustainable, scratch-cooked meal can be restrictive for schools that serve low-income communities. Consider how your school can leverage federal and local resources to ensure that your sustainable meal program is equitable and cost-competitive.
Want to see it for yourself? Visit Mundo Verde to get inspired, or find a DCPS Recycles! Ambassador School near you.
Food Initiative and Wellness Manager
Mundo Verde PCS