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Grantee Highlight

Alameda County School Districts

High Marks for Reusable Foodware at School

Reusable dishware is on a roll in school cafeterias throughout Alameda County. In just one year, five Unified School Districts—Alameda, Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, and Fremont—launched or have prepared pilots to replace single-use foodware, such as plastic sporks and 5-compartment lunch trays, with reusable alternatives. Most of the projects are supported by grant funding from StopWaste and Plastic Free Restaurants.
Emery Unified School District was the first to take the leap in August 2022, followed by Alameda Unified whose pilot introduced stainless steel lunch trays, forks and spoons, as well as condiment pumps and napkin dispensers at two elementary schools. Based on data gathered for the Alameda project, the switch will prevent around 495 thousand disposable items, or 2,500 pounds of material, from going into the waste stream annually.
However, even more than waste prevention, it’s the efforts to protect kids’ health that has motivated schools to ditch disposables. “Fiber-based disposable lunch trays typically used by schools can leach PFAS—also known as ‘forever chemicals’—into students’ food. PFAS are a class of over 15,000 man-made chemicals that don’t break down in the environment or in people’s bodies and can lead to serious health problems, like cancer and infertility,” explains Ben Schleifer of the Center of Environmental Health (CEH) in Oakland.
CEH is a key partner in all the recent reusable school foodware pilots in Alameda County. In addition to testing the disposables for toxic chemicals, they help school administrators choose reusable alternatives, determine dishwashing logistics, and secure funding sources. Aided by StopWaste’s schools team, CEH also leads the outreach and training activities for students, school staff and the rest of the school community—maybe the most important elements for a successful transition to reusables.
While the one-time purchase of reusables tends to be relatively easy to fund, particularly with the help of Plastic Free Restaurants, by far the largest expense is dishwashing. If handled in-house, staff time is often a limiting factor. Albany Unified, where three pilot schools are converting to reusables, is using their $40,000 StopWaste grant to install a dishwashing machine at their central kitchen and to hire a full-time staff person to shuttle dishes between participating sites and the washing station in a district-owned van.

Other school districts opted for off-site dishwashing by outside companies like Bay Area-based Dishjoy “They will pick up the used stainless-steel trays, forks, and spoons from our 10 pilot schools and drop off clean ones on a daily basis,” says Stephanie Willits, the project lead for Fremont Unified School District’s pilot. Currently, the cost for this service is higher than buying single-use foodware, but the hope is that this will change as more schools move to reusables. Even now, the benefits outweigh the costs. “For one thing, our frequent worries about supply chains and the availability of the disposable trays will be a thing of the past,” says Willits. "More importantly, we are delivering on requests from our own students to reduce the use of plastic in our schools and teaching the young kids hands-on sustainable life skills.”

Interested in transitioning your school to reusables? Learn more about StopWaste’s grant program, the Center of Environmental Health and their Ditch Disposables Toolkit, as well as Plastic-Free Restaurants.