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Great news: All kitchens within Princeton Public Schools can send carrot tops, expired tomato sauce, and other food waste for processing and recycling. While this requires training and support, most cafeteria workers can readily make this shift. But collecting pizza crusts, half-eaten apples, and other food scraps from student or staff meals is much more challenging. Even slight contamination can render collections unacceptable for processing and threaten the district’s food waste contract. Fortunately, PPS has three shining examples that the other schools can learn from.

Littlebrook’s Comprehensive Team Effort

Littlebrook is ensuring that practically every food scrap in the school is collected. This means bins in the kitchen to collect meal prep waste, bins in the cafeteria to collect students' food waste, and bins in staff break rooms. It also means ensuring that after-school programs and PTO events also work to comply with this system, and actively participate. 

No doubt, you can imagine the work behind this comprehensive effort. Over the years, STEAM Lab teacher Martha Friend and a group of student volunteers have streamlined the collection within the cafeteria. Ms. Friend and a committed group of students start the day by checking the bins after breakfast and fixing any mistakes so that lunch begins with a ‘clean sort.’ Aided by two grabbers, students can pull out and resort any contaminants. A newly acquired wall hanger keeps all the tools in one convenient place. Motivated students patrol the cafeteria during lunch, armed with grabbers, brooms, and dustpans, ensuring the space remains clean, and waste is sorted. 

When asked about the motivation behind their efforts, Littlebrook students emphasized the importance of creating a better environment for all. "We're doing the bins because some people make mistakes, not on purpose, so we want to sort it out," they explained. "If recycling goes in the garbage, it’s just a waste," noted another.

The initiative extends beyond the cafeteria, with food waste collection now reinstated in the staff room and partnerships established with the YWCA's afterschool program and the Littlebrook Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) to help each of these entities efficiently and accurately collect food waste. Ms. Friend highlights the importance of consistent reinforcement and education, stating, "Teach, remind, teach some more as it will only happen ifstudents and staff understand the 'why.'

Acknowledging the additional workload imposed on custodial staff, kitchen staff, classroom teachers, students, and parents. Ms. Friend emphasizes the need for collective effort and commitment. "There must be champions of the food waste collection in all areas," she asserts.

One notable challenge encountered was the "Case of the Missing Utensils," which prompted collaboration between the kitchen staff and the school community to address the issue collectively. A wanted poster was made, and students and staff alike are working to tackle this challenge.

Johnson Park’s Solution to Silverware Loss

The students at Johnson Park are also tossing their leftover food waste into a collection bin, with one notable exception. Thanks in part to a grant from Sustainable Jersey for Schools, Johnson Park has a silverware retriever on one bin that uses magnets to catch any accidentally tossed silverware.

As with Littlebrook, Johnson Park's Science Teacher, Lora Hobart, notes this is no easy task. “We did a lot of educating at the beginning of the year, which has helped with food waste sorting.” When contamination crept up, Ms. Hobart continued, the students were there to brainstorm the reasons and find potential solutions.

PHS Students Are Leading the Way

Princeton High School has also implemented a system to collect food waste within its cafeteria this year. The initiative was led by junior Sara Shahab Diaz, who started working with the administration and cafeteria managers to place a collection bin in the cafeteria.

To increase awareness and reduce contamination, they developed signs for the bin and made a clever video that was broadcast to the entire school.

To take this further, Sara also obtained a $350 grant from the U.S. Department of State to support the food composting project. This grant will be used to purchase an electric kitchen composter for Princeton High School, and students look forward to learning how it works at the school.

The Cycle of Food Waste

Whether it’s celery greens collected by a cafeteria worker at any school kitchen or a banana peel from a student at Littlebrook, Johnson Park, or PHS, they are all headed for recycling. At the high school, some scraps go to feed chickens or soldier fly larvae, but otherwise, most all scraps from the District are transported to Trenton Renewables. This local anaerobic digestion facility converts these scraps into electricity and a soil amendment. Every year, about 40 tons of PPS food scraps follow this journey, reducing the district’s footprint by 21 MTCO2, the equivalent of the carbon sequestered by 25 acres of forest each year.

If you’d like to learn how to start recycling your food scraps at home, please check out the options compiled by Sustainable Princeton.



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