Tater Tots And Milk Cartons Get A New Sustainable Transport In The School Cafeteria

School cafeterias aren’t often the places where revolutions begin. They may see their fair share of food fights and civil disobedience in protest of rubbery meat products, but rarely does something new and transformative begin in these havens of pineapple tidbits and tater tots.

But now, a handful of Miami schools are trying something new — compostable lunch trays — and the way they are making the switch could serve as a model for institutional cafeterias in hospitals and universities nationwide.

The Miami schools are hosting a pilot project of the Urban School Food Alliance, a first-of-its-kind partnership between six big-city school systems. The systems in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and Orlando combined their purchasing power to create new markets for sustainable food and lunchroom supplies. Together, these schools spend about $530 million on food and food supplies annually.

The new lunch trays, made from sugar cane, cost about 15 cents each, in comparison with the four cent traditional landfill-bound foam trays that are made from petroleum byproducts. Alliance member schools are betting that the big contracts they can offer will incentivize suppliers to sell the sugar cane trays at a reduced price. The schools are also counting on being able to sell the compost they generate to help offset costs further.


This week, the New York City Education Department will review bids by suppliers for the 850,000 trays it needs each day for breakfast and lunch programs in about 1,200 schools. If a bid is accepted, the other alliance members will be able to sign up for the same deal, without needing to negotiate on their own.

The sugar cane trays can be tossed with the food scraps and are completely compostable. Composting helps keep organic matter out of landfills where it rots in an uncontrolled way and releases vast amounts of the powerful greenhouse gas, methane. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), landfills are the third-largest source of methane in the nation.

If all goes according to plan, compostable trays will completely replace foam by September for the 345,000 students in the Miami-Dade County school system and another 2.6 million kids in the other alliance member schools.

School cafeterias are also at the center of New York City’s new composting initiative. Over 100 schools in three boroughs are currently part of a two-year compost collection pilot program. 400 schools are expected to participate in the pilot. City-wide mandatory composting is the ultimate goal of the current experiment.