In the lunchroom at Stowe Elementary School in Duluth, Minn., forlorn piles of half-eaten sandwiches and bruised bananas are transformed from trash to treasure.
Instead of tossing their uneaten school lunch scraps in the garbage bin, Stowe students donate their leftover fruits and vegetables to the school's worm compost. Items that aren't as compost-friendly, such as breads and potatoes, are donated to area farmers, who feed the free and tasty slop to their pigs.
"Knowing it won't all be going into a landfill feels good," said 10-year-old Bradley MacDougall, a fifth-grader at Stowe. "Most of the kids at our school are pretty good about it."
To be sure, the new trend in today's school lunchroom is not toting the latest Hannah Montana lunchbox nor guzzling a snazzy disposable juice box. More schools nationwide are promoting waste-free lunches, as well as urging parents to tuck sandwiches and snacks in reusable containers.
At the Academy for Global Citizenship in Chicago, for example, students sort leftovers in compost, recycle and waste bins in the cafeteria; compost bins are in the organic schoolyard garden.
Jerry Burnell, the principal at Marshwood Great Works School in South Berwick, Maine, said his school's waste-free lunch program was created after a student expressed her concerns about the thousands of empty milk cartons landing in the trash bin each week.
"We ended up finding a local farmer, talked to him about the milk cartons, and it turned out he had a shredder that can turn them into compost," Burnell said.
Advocates of the waste-free movement say the philosophy is not some radical green agenda but a practical way for both school districts and parents to save money, promote healthful eating and, yes, reduce their carbon footprint too.
"When I went to school in Duluth, we threw out everything we didn't eat," said Christine MacDougall, 42, Bradley's mother and a fan of Stowe's program. "The waste-free lunch program makes our children aware that we have to do something and that the earth can't take everything we're throwing at it."
According to Terry Cottingham, principal at Stowe, an overwhelming majority of the students, parents and staff at this prekindergarten through fifth-grade elementary school are enthusiastic disciples of the waste-free lunch movement. Student "cadets" help their classmates separate their lunch-tray leftovers, placing cloth napkins in one bin, and donating the food scraps into the proper containers. The student volunteers also enjoy nurturing the worms that live in bins housed in a shed on campus -- wiggly catalysts for rich compost.
"To be honest, we still get a plastic bag at lunch once in a while," Cottingham said. "We tell the students, waste-free is our focus and we prefer if you take it back home. It isn't perfect, but we're efficient 90 percent of the time."
Amy Hemmert, a mother of two from Santa Cruz, Calif., recalls watching the teachers at her children's preschool hauling trash to the curb after lunch: plastic bags bursting with piles of food waste.
"I remember thinking to myself, there are two things that parents need: tools, like containers to pack a waste-free lunch, and education, to understand that all this trash ends up in a landfill, and there has to be a better way," said Hemmert, whose waste-free epiphany in 2001 led to the creation of Obentec Corp., a manufacturer of Japanese-style bento boxes, which she co-founded with Tammy Pelstring. (Go to laptoplunches.com.)
With a basic bento box priced at $25, Hemmert acknowledges that the waste-free tote is "not cheap," but insists the product pays for itself in a few weeks. For example, parents no longer need to buy expensive, and often unhealthy, prepackaged snacks nor pricey juice boxes and plastic sandwich bags. "Having the kids help pack a waste-free lunch allows them to take ownership, and they're less likely to dump their food," Hemmert said.
For Rick Kaye, a parent volunteer at West Side Elementary School in Healdsburg, Calif., the waste-free mission in his daughters' lunchroom has evolved into a vibrant nonprofit organization, which has served as a model for two dozen schools across the U.S. Kaye adheres to a mantra, "Today's scraps are tomorrow's resources."
At West Side, vegan food scraps are also teased out of the lunchroom leftovers and find new life as worm compost. With two harvests per year, Kaye said the homegrown fertilizer is sold at the local farmers market. The $1,000 raised by the school's Compost Club last year helped offset the annual sixth-grade trip to Yosemite National Park.
"Some students are born to do this, and others are not that excited," Kaye said. "But what we've seen is that the waste-free lunch program becomes peer-driven. There was one student I remember who was known as the recycling king. He had a role in the school that he didn't have before, and it was a cool role."