Young Advocates Changing Food Services Procedures

Young advocates are changing not only procedures at Bloomfield Hills Schools (BHS), but also the future of our earth. India Woll Stewart, a 7th grader at Bloomfield Hills Middle School (BHMS), presented an idea to BHS Food Services to switch from styrofoam trays to a more sustainable version, and the idea was enthusiastically received. As a result, BHMS students have started using compostable trays made of sugar cane and the idea is expected to be implemented district-wide next fall.

India explained, "The styrofoam trays we were using are really bad for the environment and they are also bad for us. I did a lot of research and found that animals eat the styrofoam but can't digest it, so then they will die of starvation. In addition, if people accidentally eat styrofoam, it can cause lymphoma and minor illnesses such as depression. Styrofoam takes more than 500 years to break down, and we kept piling up more and more styrofoam on the earth. That's a lot of waste." 

The BHS administration is encouraging these initiatives. India explained that she reached out to Randy English, principal of BHMS, to have a meeting where she presented her research and proposal. India described, "I did a slideshow for him and he liked it so he got me a meeting with Food Services. Then, I did my slideshow for Mrs. Romsek and she said she liked the idea and would do it."

BHS Food Services Director Marianne Romsek is directing the procedure change. "We started the pilot this year with the compostable trays. One of the reasons we are going to compostable rather than reusable trays is because we don't have dishwashers in the middle schools. Also, although you can recycle styrofoam, it is difficult to have students clean it sufficiently to make it recyclable as any food waste can contaminate the entire batch."

Compostable  trays are not the only initiative currently in the development stage. A group of 6th grade students from East Hills Middle School approached East Hills Assistant Principal Angela Konzen regarding the use of plastic in the school dining areas. The group of students were inspired by a video of a turtle with a straw stuck in its nose.

Brooke Panozzo, a self-described environmental advocate and scuba diver, cares a lot about marine life. "My friends where I scuba dive have always encouraged me to care about the environment. Then I came to school one day and saw this big bin of straws and thought, 'When did these get here? Why are these here?'" Brooke then recruited fellow sixth graders Addison Redding, Camryn (Cami)  Redding, and Pallavi Ploucha to speak to EHMS administration about the issue.

"Brooke showed us a video of a sea turtle that made me want to help," said Addison. Cami agreed, "Brooke came to me and said, 'I know you are kind of a rebel, would you come with me to the office so we can complain about why we have so many straws here.' It made me want to jump in and do something rather than leaving lives in danger." 

Konzen remembered that day vividly. "They came up to me at lunch and wanted to get rid of the straws," Konzen said, "but we knew we couldn't do that immediately, so I encouraged them to start with an action item they could change right away. They came up with the idea to move the recycling bins to a more prominent place in the cafeteria so everyone could see them better. Now we have been brainstorming ideas and obstacles and reaching out to groups like science teachers, custodians, and Food Services to see what we can implement."  The students did the research and prepared a presentation for BHS Food Services of their ideas. (/uploaded/schools/EHMS/Plastic_.pdf)

Pallavi described how the group adjusted their focus to encompass more than just straws. "We started with the plastic straws," Pallavi said, "but then we realized there were so many more non-compostable materials that we were using every day. We did some math to find out how much were using in a year."  

One of the group's ideas is to at least reduce the amount of plastic. "We could have the people who are giving out the food only give silverware to the people who need it so people don't take it and waste it," suggested Cami. The group also is exploring silverware that has a fork on one side and a knife on another so that only one piece and not two would be used.

Addison noted that one of the other things the group hopes to also do is increase awareness. "There are a lot of people who use the tray just for things like chips or apples," Addison said. "Or they will grab a tray and not use it and then just throw it out." 

Romsek agrees that reducing waste is also a high priority for BHS Food Services. "As a Food Service Director, I see how much we buy. We go through thousands of just trays across the district. We are looking for ideas on what we can do to change this." 

These students already are personal advocates for the environment and are working to increase awareness among their peers. India said, "I care a lot about the environment. When we go to a restaurant I will bring my own takeout containers or if we go to an ice cream place we will bring our own spoons. We also bring our own bags to the grocery store."

Pallavi has seen first-hand how other areas are encouraging recycling. Pallavi said, "I took a trip a year ago to Vancouver and Seattle and they are very eco-friendly there. They have tons more bins for recycling and if you go to a restaurant and ask for a straw they won't have any."

Replacing straws will not be as immediate, but Romsek will be exploring alternatives over the summer. "Before we came in as the company to manage the food service operation here, someone ordered a LOT of straws. We haven't bought straws in four years, and we still have a couple of years worth. We are going to use up those straws, but we are going to work toward minimizing any additional purchases."

"For example," Romsek continued, "I realized we were buying juice boxes with straws attached and also straws in sport kits, so we can take that step starting next year to start ordering things that don't come with straws. We also are examining other options. I have had a hard time finding straw alternatives, but we are exploring paper straws. Someone even told me that you can use a type of pasta noodle as a straw." One constraint is that items have to conform to federal requirements as well, so anything edible can't have excessive amounts of ingredients like sugar.

The switch to biodegradable trays has been well-received at BHMS. "Some of the other students were happy because they also realized all that styrofoam wasn't good either," said India. "I think a lot of students do care. They told me I did a good job. I feel like I have really helped the environment by just cutting down the styrofoam in our school.

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