Taking a bite out of school lunch waste

Alcona Elementary fourth graders are partnering with MSU Extension to study and reduce trash generated from their lunches.

Person holding marine debri
Lake Huron marine debris. Photo by Rick Houchin Photography.

In September 2020, the Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative (NEMIGLSI) in partnership with Michigan State University Extension was awarded a two-year $50,000 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Prevention Grant titled “Food for Thought.” NOAA Marine Debris Prevention Grants are designed to support increasing awareness of the impact of marine debris and encourage a program’s implementation that results in long-term institutional and behavioral changes to reduce marine debris.

Why marine debris?

Marine debris is any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes. Marine debris is a threat to our environment, navigation safety, the economy and potentially human safety and health. It is an everyday problem, a global problem, and most importantly, marine debris is preventable.

“Food for Thought” is a collaborative effort among NEMIGLSI partners and schools connected through place-based education and stewardship of the Great Lakes. “Food for Thought” takes a different approach to reducing and preventing marine debris. Instead of promoting recycling, “Food for Thought” is designed to reduce the production of land-based litter, reducing marine debris before it starts.

This project seeks ways to reduce the amount of trash produced in school lunchrooms. To achieve this goal, it will engage with teachers and students around three objectives that will result in the Taking a Bite Out of Lunchroom Waste educator tool kit. This kit will be a compilation of resources to facilitate future student engagement in lunchroom waste data collection, analysis and development of a feasibility report. The feasibility report will provide school administrators with the costs and benefits of making the changes proposed by the students.

Additionally, the kit will contain strategies and information for embedding lunchroom waste analysis into the school curriculum, so it becomes an annual process helping to ensure long-term change. Teacher and student engagement will strive to encompass three objectives:

1. Learn about marine debris.

  • What is marine debris?
  • What is its impact on our Great Lakes?
  • How can we prevent marine debris?

2. Collect and analyze lunch trash data.

  • What types of trash comes from school lunches?
  • What type of trash was the most abundant?
  • Why do we think there was so much of a certain type of trash?
  • Is there a different way of preparing/distributing school lunches so we reduce a specific item of trash?

3. Investigate, research and write a plan to implement reduction or prevention of their target trash item.

  • What can we change to reduce our lunch trash?
  • Who can we interview to learn more about rules that guide school lunch preparations?
  • How do we find information about alternatives?
  • Who do we need to talk to or persuade to make the changes we researched?

During the next two years, through education, research and analysis, “Food for Thought” will engage students and their community in a continuing conversation about the impact of land-based litter on our watershed and the Great Lakes. “Food for Thought” has the long-term goal of schools and communities making informed decisions to protect our watershed through institutional and behavioral changes that reduce the amount of land-based litter produced.

This effort collaborates with the Sea Grant Center for Great Lakes Literacy (CGLL) aligning with NOAA Great Lakes Literacy Principles and leveraging CGLL education resources like marine debris lessons and Trash Trunk loanable teaching trunk.

“Food for Thought” timeline

Year one

  • Recruit two pilot teachers and their students—Mrs. Schroeder, Alcona Elementary science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teacher with the Alcona fourth graders, and Mrs. Dietz, Immanuel Lutheran (Alpena) English and social studies middle school teacher.
  • Collect and test potential activities and lessons to help youth meet the objectives. Discuss activities and lessons with students and teachers to make modifications as needed. Design original lessons to meet the objectives as needed.
  • Help youth identify potential opportunities for change and research the cost or feasibility of making the changes and present their findings to the appropriate individuals.

Summer 2021

  • Compile modified and piloted lessons and supplies into the Taking a Bite Out of Lunchroom Waste toolkit.
  • Provide training for 10 additional teachers on how to use the toolkit.

Year two

  • Help teachers and students use the toolkit and develop a plan to reduce their lunchroom waste.

MSU Extension and Michigan Sea Grant are pleased to be part of the NEMIGLSI Network, a network that aligns so closely to our mission at MSU Extension to help people improve their lives through an educational process that applies knowledge to critical issues, needs and opportunities. Critical issues like marine debris and water quality and opportunities like empowering youth make changes that aid in the protection of the Great Lakes and our communities.

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