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Area schools serving up lunch using plenty of plastic

Centennial Elementary students grab plastic utensils during the lunch hour on Wednesday. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO — At a time when children are encouraged from all corners to reduce, reuse and recycle, they may be receiving contradictory messages in their school cafeteria.

Each day during breakfast and lunchtimes at local schools, children use tens of thousands of non-biodegradable plastic utensils and other plastic containers that end up in the garbage and ultimately, a landfill.

Kris Bevill, who has two kids in Fargo schools, would like to see stainless-steel utensils back in the schools. Bevill said she and another parent floated the idea with the district last spring, but felt it didn't go anywhere.

"We think it's something a lot of people would care about, but no one realizes unless they eat lunch with their child," said Bevill.

The district, which exclusively uses plastic utensils, purchased 2.5 million plastic forks, spoons and knives for use during the next nine months. Students at West Fargo and Moorhead schools use a mix of utensils; elementary schools are mostly equipped with stainless steel that is washed and reused, while middle and high schools rely on plastic.

Moorhead schools ordered 825,000 plastic utensils last year, while West Fargo Schools buys about 775,000 annually.

Bevill uses a visual to convey the magnitude of even a portion of the plastic waste scraped off lunch trays in Fargo schools each year.

"Plastic forks alone would fill half a semi," she said. "That's how much is getting dumped in the landfill."

Bevill and her co-workers recently recalled their time in the school lunchroom.

"One of their memories as a child was hearing the clinking of the silverware," she said. "Now, they just stand in line and push it all into the garbage."

Plastic vs. stainless steel

One argument for sticking with plastic comes down to money. Donna Tvedt, food and nutrition services director for Moorhead Public Schools, said the replacement cost of metal utensils is too high, because many older students tend to toss everything into the garbage.

"I used to be the head cook at the high school," she said. "We were going through so much stainless steel."

Debra Laber, nutrition services director for the Fargo School District, said they've been using plastic utensils since she was hired 12 years ago, if not before. She said the cost of replacing metal utensils isn't her only concern.

"The bigger thing is, how do we get them cleaned?" she wondered.

Laber said none of the Fargo district's 15 elementary schools has its own dishwashing machine, due in part to limited space, so metal utensils would need to be shipped daily by truck to the district's central kitchen.

Staff members at the kitchen, located at 419 3rd St. N. behind the district office, already wash all of the plastic meal trays for the elementary schools. The middle and high schools in Fargo take care of their own trays.

"At least we use real trays," said Laber. "Some districts use styrofoam trays, and they get thrown away every day."

She said adding metal silverware to the mix would require more truck space for shipping back to the kitchen and extra staff, plus the additional cost of detergent and hot water — also a valuable resource.

"It didn't seem that cost-effective," said Laber.

Fargo school district documents show that nearly $33,000 will be spent on plastic forks, spoons and knives this year.

Bevill's calculations put the cost of buying reusable flatware for the district at a little over $3,220. That figure was based on lower enrollment from a few years ago and didn't take into account additional labor and water costs, or the cost of replacements.

An important social tool

Bevill believes it's important that children learn to eat with real silverware.

She said many kids associate plastic utensils with the unhealthy choice of fast food.

She also recalled having lunch at school with her then-kindergarten student last year, when the youngsters were trying to eat soup with a "spork," or plastic spoon-fork combo.

She said the soup was sliding off the utensils and the prongs were getting stuck on the bottom of the styrofoam bowls, causing many students to give up in frustration.

The "sporks," which were meant to be a cost-saving measure, were scrapped this year because they didn't work well, Laber said.

Bevill also said throwaway utensils don't fit with what children are being taught in the classroom.

According to state academic content standards, students must be able to identify the benefits of recycling, reusing and reducing waste.

Laber said Fargo schools have made a small change this year aimed at reducing the number of plastic utensils used. Instead of being the first item in the serving line, they're now at the end, so students ideally take only what they need based on the foods they've chosen.

Last year, students at one Fargo school recycled their plastic utensils as part of a student council project.

"I do think it will be done again this year," said Dana Carlson, principal at Washington Elementary.

He said the idea came from students who are fifth-graders this year. "It was at least as much about their leadership as anything," said Carlson.

The Fargo district is partnering with the city in a pilot project to recycle milk cartons at several elementary schools. West Fargo schools also recycle some of their milk cartons, in addition to cardboard and aluminum cans.

Laber and Tvedt said they're open to making more changes in food service that appear to be more environmentally friendly, if that's what the public wants.

Bevill hopes that's the case.

"We have to start somewhere, and silverware is a great place to start," she said.

Local school lunchrooms (annually)

FARGO

1 million plastic forks

1 million plastic spoons

500,000 plastic knives

515,000 plastic soufflé cups (for fruit, etc.)

WEST FARGO

400,000 plastic forks

350,000 plastic spoons

25,000 plastic knives

862,500 plastic soufflé cups (for condiments, fruit, etc)

72,500 plastic clamshell containers (for grab-n-go meals)

MOORHEAD

432,000 plastic spoons

378,000 plastic forks

15,000 plastic knives

195,000 plastic portion cups

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