Compost crisis: food waste practices fail to reach district standards

Preparing+for+school+lunch%2C+cafeteria+employee+Edina+Husic+lays+out+burger+buns.+Most+leftover+foods+are+composted+at+the+end+of+the+day%2C+unless+they+can+be+served+again.+%E2%80%9CIt+seems+like+we+do+waste+a+lot+of+food.+Overall+the+whole+picture+for+school+food+service+across+the+nation%E2%80%99s+waste+.+.+.+it%E2%80%99s+some+astronomical+number%2C%E2%80%9D+Food+Service+Regional+Manager+Kenny+Witte+said.+%E2%80%9CWe+actually+are+continuously+improving+and+forecasting+and+are+trying+to+make+our+menus+more+appealing+and+getting+kids+to+eat+more+of+the+foods+that+we%27re+offering%2C+so+that+way+we+have+less+waste.+It%27s+improving.%E2%80%9D

Addie Gleason

Preparing for school lunch, cafeteria employee Edina Husic lays out burger buns. Most leftover foods are composted at the end of the day, unless they can be served again. “It seems like we do waste a lot of food. Overall the whole picture for school food service across the nation’s waste . . . it’s some astronomical number,” Food Service Regional Manager Kenny Witte said. “We actually are continuously improving and forecasting and are trying to make our menus more appealing and getting kids to eat more of the foods that we're offering, so that way we have less waste. It's improving.”

Second lunch just ended. The cafeteria employees start to evaluate what can be served tomorrow and what will be composted. They walk over to the salad bar and compost all of the vegetables because they are considered contaminated and unfit to eat for a second day.

“It’s only two inches of product in [the salad bar pans], which is two pounds. But then you have 15 pans right there, [and] no one takes any of it or they just take a little nibble of cauliflower,” food service regional manager Kenny Witte said. “Then it just all goes into the compost. It’s pretty unfortunate.”

Every day, food waste from lunches is composted or thrown into the trash. Many students aren’t educated on how to dispose of food properly, as witnessed by custodian Sean Smith.

“I put on two pairs of gloves for safety sanitization, and I dig through and get what should be in the yellow [compost bins]. Do I prefer to do that? Not really, but I would do my part to help get it right,” Smith said.

Although informational signs have been posted directing students how to dispose correctly, custodians and district leaders still see room for growth.

“I’m working with the custodians at West High to help get them on board as far as helping us sort through during the lunch shift,” Parkway sustainability coordinator Hannah Carter said. “On top of that, the students need to be able to know how to do it.”

Parkway West High School has the most contaminated compost bins out of the entire district.

“For unknown reasons, Parkway West High has had a challenge over times trying to reduce the amount of contamination into the compost bin,” director of sustainability and purchasing Erik Lueders said. “[Lessening our environmental impact] is important not just for Parkway but for everyone. Across this planet, we live in a very consumerist, and unfortunately wasteful, society, that’s just kind of where we’re at.”

Addie Gleason
An infographic displaying what students can do to promote environmentally friendly practices.

Every time that trash is found in a compost bin, Parkway is fined $3 per contaminated bin by the composting company. For example, in December, West High had 33 contaminated bins, so the district paid $100 in fees. However, Parkway is more concerned about the environmental impact than the costs of composting.

“Every amount of food wasted is a lot of money wasted, but also a lot of waste generated,” Carter said. “So we addressed food waste from an environmental standpoint, more than a money standpoint, because composting isn’t cheap. We just know it’s the right thing to do.”

In addition to the most contaminated compost bins, West produces between 40,000 and 50,000 pounds of waste per month. The 2025 goal for Parkway is to reach a 70% diversion rate from the landfill; Parkway is currently at 55%.

“I think that in order to ensure that the planet can sustain environmental services and systems, the biodiversity that’s needed to do so, and mitigating climate change–which studies are showing the effects are happening much more rapidly than originally expected–we all, as a society, including Parkway, need to have a better understanding of the steps that we can take to mitigate our impact on the environment so we’re leaving future generations in a better circumstance,” Lueders said.

On average, the district produces 22,000 pounds of compost per month, which avoids the production of about 39 tons of carbon emissions.

“The climate crisis [is] real, [it’s] an urgent issue,” Carter said.  “This is confusing for people to understand why landfill waste contributes to carbon emissions. When you compost, you reduce carbon emissions.”