Make a Plan: How to Transform your Cafeteria
To bring in reusable FSW to your school or district you will need a vision, partners, flexibility, time, and dedication.
To make this a reality you will also need a plan. Below we have outlined 12 steps we think will help you to prepare and complete a plan to bring in reusable FSW. Each step includes some of CEH’s best practices and resources that can help you along your journey. We acknowledge every school and district are different and have different challenges. While not comprehensive, we have included the most common aspects to consider when making your plan. We encourage you to use any and all resources available to you.
The goal of this project is to have schools transition to safe reusable FSW.
Many schools and districts are not ready to go to 100% reusables, but might be able to shift a single FSW item, such as cups, to reusables. Other schools might not have the infrastructure to break free of single-use FSW, but do not want to use polystyrene. All of these small steps, which will each take effort to implement, move your school or district closer to eliminating problematic single-use products and maximizing reusables. Having the conversation and meeting with stakeholders opens the door to further improvements. Keep pushing for your goal, and remember, other schools and districts have done it, and yours can too.
A last word of advice. This is a marathon process, not a sprint. Take your time in the beginning and it will save you time in the long run.
The above information presents many important reasons why a school or a district should want to switch from problematic single-use food service ware (FSW) to healthier and more environmentally preferable options. Any one of these reasons alone, whether it be harmful PFAS chemicals, the adverse health effects, the mountains of waste produced, or the persistence of the plastics in the environment are enough to warrant a change. When considered jointly, the urgency of the issue becomes paramount.
This handbook is intended to help your school transition from single-use FSW to healthier, more sustainable, and ultimately reusable alternatives. You will learn how to source healthier single-use FSW while you create a successful reusables transition plan. Knowing that all schools have different situations and needs, CEH offers a variety of transition paths to meet your unique needs.
12 Steps to Transform your Cafeteria
Click to navigate to each section, or scroll to view the full guide
What is motivating you to make the change?
STEP 1: Motivation
- Waste Management
- Student Voice
- Student Health
- Cafeteria Culture
Keep this motivation(s) as your guiding light and if you get lost or frustrated during the transition, make sure to turn back to your motivation.
Did you know?
One of the biggest carbon footprints for a school is from school meals and the cafeteria.
STEP 2: Partners
FIRST: This process is very hard to do alone. Activate your partners to save time and energy. THEY WANT TO HELP YOU! SECOND: You are not alone! CEH is here to help. Feel free to email Foodware@ceh.org with questions, concerns, insights, or appreciations. We want to hear from you!
Who could be your ally in transforming the school’s cafeteria?
- Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) or other relevant school committees, green team, etc
- Classroom teachers
- Specialist teachers (science, garden, environmental)
- School district sustainability coordinators
- City council members and local government
- School clubs: zero waste, student green team, evironmental club, etc
- School nutrition staff
- Nutrition service director
- School superintendent
- School nurse
- Local environmental groups and organizations
- School board members
- Stakeholders in the community
For your consideration
Who do you think might be the group most resistant to this change? What would be a way to change them to an ally in this cafeteria transformation project?
STEP 3: Assessment
After you have found and enlisted your partners, you will need to explore what is feasible at your school or district. We have provided two questionnaires to help assess where your school is currently at and will help provide information about where your system could potentially go. You should only need to fill out one questionnaire, either on the school level or the district level depending on where you would like to focus. Some of these questions you might not readily have answers for, but we hope to point you to who in your system may hold these answers. It is important to keep good relations with these stakeholders, and you may have to ask them questions during the evaluation phase to see what your new program accomplished. During the assessment phase, do not feel obligated to answer all the questions immediately. If you take your time on this portion, it will save you more time in later parts of the Planning Guide.
We also highly recommend that you take pictures of your schools FSW and waste, along with every other part of the planning guide. These pictures can often be the most compelling part of the assessment. You can also use before pictures to illustrate how much improvement your school or district has made. If you would like to share pictures with CEH to amplify your schools success, we would be happy to share with our community on social media.
Consider taking pictures of students and staff taking action and celebrating successes, the new system in both its infancy and once it has been established, and even video of testimonials. All these visual media can help you document the process and show others how far you have come.
Measure the Problem
You can’t monitor what you can’t measure. Once you know what is motivating you to transition to reusables, you should also find a way to measure it. Some easily measurable impacts of single-use disposable FSW in schools are cost, waste, and student health. Here are a few ideas and resources to measure the financial cost of the current system:
- Number of times items are used and discarded in a year
- Total cost for food service ware
- The cost of each individual item that is purchased
Here are a few ideas and resources to measure the waste impacts of the current system:
- Before pictures of the school dumpsters
- Number of landfill bags generated from the cafeteria in a day from the current system (ask the custodian)
- Number of times the dumpster is picked up from school in a month
- Weight, volume, and percentage of contamination of a landfill waste bag from the cafeteria
Here are a few ideas to measure the student health of the current system:
- Time for each student spent eating off of single-use disposable items during a meal.
- Number of times students eat from single-use disposables in a school year
- Number of times meals are served hot on single-use disposables in a school year
Know your School's Kitchen
An important factor to consider is what type of kitchens your school or district has. This can determine what type of equipment will need to be purchased.
- A single kitchen that provides food service to multiple schools in your district
- This requires a transportation system to bring foodware to and from each school for cleaning
- This would include a van and a staff person
- May require food warmers
- Would require a high-capacity dishwashing machine to serve multiple schools with reusables
- A kitchen at each school where food prep and dishwashing can occur
- This layout is more straightforward and may not require staff to transport foodware very far
- Could require low-capacity dishwashing machine
What if my school is not ready to move to reusable FSW?
While safe reusable FSW should be the long-term goal of every school, it might not be feasible to transition to them in the short-term. There are a variety of safer disposable FSW that a school can select. PFAS-free compostable FSW products may be a viable short-term option, but this option does require your school or district to have access to a commercial composting facility and systems in place to make sure both students and staff are disposing of the FSW products correctly. For advise on better single-use disposable FSW, see CEH’s Purchasers Guide and Single Use Foodware Public Database for assistance in making safe purchasing decisions:
Did you know?
Single-use paper products are not very sustainable
Single-use paper products can be a step in the right direction when compared to plastic, but they can still contain harmful ingredients and have significant negative environmental impacts. Food service ware paper is often the product of downcycled recycled paper, and crops used to make paper often come from plantations - a better use would be to grow food or other lasting products.
STEP 4: Pick a Foodware Program
There are currently three different types of programs that can be applied to your school. The ultimate goal should be achieving the full Roll-out of Reusable Program which would entail having 100% reusable, toxic-free foodware in school lunches. The Partial Roll-out and PFAS-free disposables are steps that schools can take to move towards the larger goal of 100% reusables. Naturally, all schools are different, so you should customize your program to fit your school’s needs.
Full Reusable Roll-Out
All the FSW the food is served on is toxic free and reusable. Reusable trays, plates, cups, and utensils are cleaned regularly by dedicated staff. There are enough sets for the day–to-day use and a backup just in case. This can be done for the entire school week, but you can also explore dedicating a single day a week to reusables. Reusable Thursdays, for example.
Partial Reusable Roll-Out
FSW consists of a combination of reusables as well as some PFAS-free single-use items. This hybrid program allows you to roll out specific items one at a time. For example, you could replace single-use utensils and trays with reusable utensils and baskets. These items are easier to switch because there's less of a demand on dishwashing machines. Single-use plates, cups, and napkins are in use, but should be free of PFAS and other toxics. Assuming there is access to a commercial composting facility in your region that will accept FSW, you should consider striving for toxic free compostable single-use items where appropriate. In this system, students participate in cleaning and disposing. Work is ongoing to increase adoption of reusables in the long-term.
Compostable and PFAS-free Single-use Foodware Roll-Out
All foodware is single-use, but made from safe and non-toxic materials. Assuming there is access to a commercial composting facility in your region that will accept FSW, you should consider striving for toxic free compostable single-use items where appropriate. Students compost each item along with the food waste during lunch. Students only take necessary single-use items for their meal. Work is ongoing to increase adoption of reusables in the long-term.
Customize the above programs to fit your schools’ needs. Which items do you want? Which items are essential?
Things to consider when selecting the right foodware program for you:
Are you including system simplifications?
Some changes do not require huge infrastructure shifts. For example, providing students with napkin and utensil dispensers as needed, rather than individually wrapped spork packets is a great way to cut down on waste and disposable culture. If the students have the option to take some items (straws, utensils, napkins, condiments, milk, even trays) it will encourage student autonomy and will allow them to make more sustainable choices. Due to larger constraints, this might be the only current change a school can make in the cafeteria, but if that is the case, it is an important first step, and can lead to bigger and broader changes in the future.
Do you have outside funding coming in? You might be surprised how much is out there on the local, state, and federal levels. There are many “green school” and “sustainable schools” grants available. This is the green-ribbon school funding from the U.S. department of education, but make sure to check your utility providers, district funds, federal, state, city and other local governments and nonprofits for other funding sources. Also, reach out and coordinate with the district's facilities departments to see about all new construction projects. Make sure that kitchen upgrades and revamps to the cafeteria and kitchen have to consider accommodating reusables.
Are you hiring extra staff or increasing current staff's work hours?
Setting up a system with reusables may include reallocation of staff hours, staff working additional hours, or hiring additional staff to support the reusable operation. It is important to assess the plan to see how much time will be required for the different areas that will be impacted. Changes may be seen in how the meal items are packed, served, transported, collected, and washed, for example. Finding ways to be as efficient as possible and eliminating obsolete tasks is crucial to reducing the total labor time needed. There are examples from school districts across the U.S. that have switched from non-reusables to reusables and have seen less time needed for waste management as well as an elimination of the hours spent on single-use serviceware inventory. With school food service staff being some of the lowest paid positions in school districts and often holding multiple jobs to make ends meet, it is important to find ways to invest in our school food service staff by providing them with additional hours and hopefully increased pay to fully serve our youth. In some cases, districts have shown savings over a period of time from their switch to reusables, and these savings can be funneled back to covering additional pay to food service staff. It will also take a partnership and coordination with the custodial team.
Make a Proposal
Calculate the current costs. This includes more than what your school is spending on single-use in a year. For example, things such as storage and waste fees, staff time spent on the ongoing purchase, and management and disposal of these products. Calculate the new costs. Include buying all the foodware (reusable and/or disposable) and be specific on exact amounts, items, and materials. To be conservative, you may want to assume you will need 1 to 3 sets but this will depend on your set-up and system. Include equipment the custodian and kitchen staff will need (such as dishwashing machines/carts). Calculate energy/water/detergent cost and include waste savings if you have access to that data. To understand the entire scope of the project, make a clear comparison chart. In addition, calculate when the proposed roll-out will have a Return on Investment (ROI). If warranted, propose an adjustment to the bell schedule. Remember, ask for everything on your wishlist. You can always make two proposals and have the more modest one as a backup.
Did you know?
An average elementary (K-5) school in the U.S. with roughly 450 students would spend about $6,000 on 81,000 polystyrene foam trays every year if they served one meal per student every school day.
STEP 5: Make a Schedule
You should have some key landmarks mapped out for your Foodware Roll-out. Below is a list and some timing of important mile-markers.
- Stakeholder Meeting
- Perform Baseline Audit
- Foodware Procured
- Dishwashing Machine Installed and Functioning
- Kick-off Assembly
- Training and Active Monitoring
- Gather Data/Evaluate results
- Passive Monitoring
- Celebration Assembly
Below is a sample two month schedule. Take more time if you need it. Remember, it is a marathon not a sprint.
Did you know?
Plastic is not easily recycled.
Out of the 1.03 million tons of plastic that was thrown away in the U.S. in 2018, the amount that was actually recycled was statistically negligible (under 5,000 tons).1 19% was incinerated for energy and 81% was sent to landfills.2
STEP 6: Inform the Stakeholders
Schedule the Stakeholder Meeting. It should be about one hour. Make sure the principal, school purchaser, custodian, and nutrition service staff are present. Other partners in section 2 can also help. Make sure to invite them and encourage them to come. In the meeting you should propose the switch, explain why, explain how, show them who wants the switch, and then allow for questions and concerns. Note: The principal is a key stakeholder and often has the most time constraints. Make sure to schedule around the principal’s time needs. The Meeting
Things to bring:
- Clear Proposal(s)
- Cost Analysis
- Sample Case Studies
- Optional: Students willing to address stakeholders about reusables and FSW
Things to mention:
- Your Motivation
- Name of Partners and Allies
- Environmental Impacts
- Science around Toxics
- Potential Media Exposure
Things to consider:
- Make sure to have a solid plan
- Get signoff from all stakeholders - particularly the principal
- Keep open lines of communication - share your email and number
- Set up another meeting if you cannot get the project approved
- Let the folks know this will be an ongoing process until a consensus is reached
- Be sure to finalize the project
For your consideration
Most Important: Listen to the Concerns! Make adjustments to address concerns without compromising on core issues.
STEP 7: Purchase Foodware
Buying FSW items can be a bit of an afterthought, but it shouldn’t be. Declaring your values with your purchasing power is a great way to make changes both locally in your school or district, and also on a larger level to influence manufacturers. Here are some resources to help you make the most healthy decision for both people and the environment.
Establish a Relationship with the supplier.
You might be able to get different price points and also customized items for your needs. Be prepared to answer some questions:
- Which supplier did you pick?
- Why did you pick that supplier?
- Will they send you samples?
- How quickly will the items ship?
- How long will the items last?
Complete needed purchasing for the year.
How many meals are served in a day that require FSW? Multiply that amount by 1-3. Plan to purchase 1 to 3 sets, depending on whether your school will have a centralized washing system or maintain the foodware on each site. For a centralized system, 3 sets would allow for a set to be always clean, dirty, and processing. The redundancy will also allow for unseen problems which might arise.
A new tool, GreenScreen Certified, has been developed by CEH and another national non-profit organization, Clean Production Action (CPA), to make it easier for purchasers to identify single-use FSW products with safer chemistry. The certification launched in 2021 and helps purchasers select single-use FSW products with preferred chemistry for people and the planet and avoid regrettable substitutions. For example, new products are coming out in response to purchasers demanding PFAS-free fiber-based FSW. However, manufacturers will not disclose what they are using instead of PFAS to provide water- and grease-resistance. GreenScreen Certified provides a framework for purchasers to demand that all chemical ingredients in the product be assessed for chemical hazard through a trusted third-party. As purchasers, an important step to getting safer FSW products on the market is to ask your suppliers or manufacturers to offer GreenScreen Certified FSW.
STEP 8: Dishwashing Machine
What type of dishwashing machines are best for different-size schools? Here are some different types of dishwashing machines to consider:
Once the dishwashing machine arrives or the kitchen washing protocol is established, you should complete the below steps before launching the new system:
Test the machine or sink capacity:
- Make a count of the number of dishes when the machine is at capacity
- Clearly post these numbers in the kitchen
- Make sure dishes are easily transferred from the clean up area to the dishwashing machine
- Make sure clean dishes are easily transported to storage, where they can be utilized again
Establish how much soap/detergent is needed per wash:
- Clearly post this amount above the washing station
- Set up a system to purchase soap/detergent (annually) and reorder as needed
Who will be the point person(s) on dishes and the dishwashing machine in the kitchen? This point person(s) should be able to:
- Establish a working protocol for dishes to get washed, stored, and utilized daily.
- Ensure quality control of cleanliness for the dishes.
- Enact a contingency plan in case the machine is not working for a day (power outage for example)
- Have a contact number for maintenance, troubleshooting, and malfunction of your dishwashing machine.
- Take ownership of the dishwashing, washing station, and student cleanup areas.
- Note: This person should get paid for this work if it is adding additional hours to their duties.
STEP 9: Launch
You can make a morning announcement, have an all school assembly, or even tell students as they gather for lunch, but the whole school (students and staff) needs to be informed that something new is happening in the cafeteria or lunch area. CEH recommends dedicating an assembly to this process and making it fun, interactive and incorporating training and a mascot if you have access to one.
Things to mention in the announcement:
- We are doing something new
- Why the school community is doing the transition
- Time frame
- Visible achievements
- Bring out the mascot!
Give a goal time limit. Two to three weeks is a good length of time to establish a new behavior.
Set measurable goals. A goal to “reduce waste” is good but a more specific goal such as “cut waste in half by weight” or “reduce landfill bags from twelve per day to six per day” is better. These clear markers of success result in a greater feeling of accomplishment once achieved. Also set achievable goals. Reducing waste by 50% or saving the school $1000 dollars per year are easily achievable.
Competition and school pride are good motivating factors, but they can be tricky. If a whole school district is trying this, you can have each school try to compete. Have many goals, so each school can win at something. Reduce the most waste, compost/recycle the most, have the fewest landfill bags or the most student cafeteria volunteers. The most days in a row with reusables. You can try to do it between grades in the school, but we have found this is complicated to track, and we do not want any student to be discouraged from the new program if they “lost.”
Have students make a poster which can track the goal. Examples include: the amount of landfill bags produced on day 1, day 2, day 3 and so on, or money saved on day 1, day 2, day 3. Make sure that the youngest students in the cafeteria can understand it. We recommend using clear visuals and posters. If multiple languages are spoken in the school community, signs should incorporate the relevant languages, as appropriate.
If you tell students they will get a prize for participating in the new system, or volunteering to be on the green team, they will be more likely to do it. Incentives do work, but do not make them complicated, and do not make them the sole reason to participate. For example, everyone (who sorted) in the cafeteria gets a pencil. Everyone who volunteered for the green team gets a special button. Reusable lunch bags, metal straws, reusable utensils, or branded stickers are all potential options. Know your audience and what they would want.
For your consideration
Taking action to make your community and world more sustainable is both fun and meaningful. We want students to enjoy taking part in their school transformation and associate sustainable actions with positive emotions. Helping in the cafeteria should be a privilege and we recommend that being part of a sustainable cafeteria or helping to sort waste should not be punitive. If you have happy students and adults taking on green initiatives, they will be more likely to succeed and the system you are rolling out will be more sustainable.
STEP 10: Training & Monitoring
Once the announcement of the new FSW system is completed for the school or district, we have to change both the students’ and staffs’ behavior to make it effective. Having point people and peer to peer learning is a best practice. We call these point people (students and adults) the "green team" or "ambassadors." We also find that with the new system comes new infrastructure, and it is best to put signage on this new infrastructure for passive training.
Green Team formation
Make sure there is a Green Team (volunteer) point person. This could be part of your role as school champion, or see if someone else would like to take this on. Custodians often like the extra help and enjoy having a bigger leadership role at the school, so they make great point people.
Setup student/parent/staff monitor
- Train them to direct and advise the students
- Set up a team mentality (Green Team)
- Establish a rotation and a timeline. Will your site only have monitors for two weeks? One month? Forever?
- Encourage them to let students learn the new practice, not do it for them
- Encourage them to be able to explain what they are doing and why it is important
- Appreciate them for their service
There will be two to three weeks of active monitoring. This is when your monitors (you, teachers, parent volunteers, student volunteers, custodian, etc.) will be doing the big push to change the students behavior. The first 2 days are going to feel slow and chaotic. After the first week it will start to run smoothly and you can adjust the system to fit your school. After two to three weeks of active monitoring and the wrap-up assembly, the hope is the students get it and the lunchroom staff should be confident in the new system. They can passively monitor, but should not need to be more hands-on than they were with the previous system. The new program should take care of itself.
There are also passive ways to change the behavior. We find that signage in and around the lunch area or around the waste stream is a best practice. We encourage you to incorporate age appropriate signage about reusables, the new logistics of the system (i.e. stand in line to throw away waste, stack your tray in the cart) and waste where necessary. Having students make posters is a best practice, but there are also sign makers available including this one produced by StopWaste.
Student volunteers are great. We find if you get a whole grade on board it will be more effective. If you are in a K-5, consider the 4th grade. They are mature enough to handle directing others in the cafeteria, and they will remember and practice it when they graduate into 5th grade. The curriculum we developed is designed for fourth graders.
Discussing cafeterias and your school’s transition is a great teaching opportunity in the classroom. There are waste audits, environmental lessons, and real-world math computations that are needed and can be done by students even in elementary school. Beginning these lessons before or immediately after the launch is a best practice and will provide memorable experiences. Plus, since all the students have a similar shared experience around the lunch-room and cafeteria, they will feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas.
Updates after monitoring
Allow for system and design updates. Make sure communication from the custodians, lunch monitor, and nutrition service staff is heard and acted upon. It is okay to change up a big part of the plan if something unexpected comes up. Make sure any changes are communicated with the students and staff at large. Stick with your guiding motivation and keep moving forward as best you can.
Did you know?
In 2019, New York City banned all single-use foam food containers. Before the ban, NYC public schools threw away 850,000 foam trays every day.
STEP 11: Evaluate
After the launch and monitoring, you will need to see if you achieved your goals. Two metrics to consider are cost savings and waste audits. We would recommend a follow up waste audit about a month after the initial assembly. If you can select a day with similar or the same lunch meal as the baseline waste audit, this would be ideal.
If you took measurements during the assessment, you should take similar measurements to evaluate your progress. Here are a few ideas to measure the financial cost of the old system compared with the new.
- What was the cost of the new FSW?
- How many FSW do you discard with the new system compared to the old?
- When will you have a return on investment?
Here are a few ideas and resources to measure the waste impacts of the current system.
- After pictures of the school dumpsters. Compare the before and after.
- Another waste audit. How does weight, volume, and percentage of contamination of a landfill waste bag from the cafeteria in the new system compare to the old system?
Comparing the first (baseline) waste audit data against the audit after the school shifted to new FSW. There should be dramatic improvements if reusables were incorporated in the students’ lunches, particularly in the landfill waste.
- Number of landfill bags generated from the cafeteria in a day from the current system (ask the custodian)
- Number of times the dumpster will need to be picked up from school in a month with the current waste output
Here are a few ideas to measure the student health of the current system.
- Time for each student spent eating off of non-toxic reusable items during a meal
- Number of times student eat from non-toxic reusable items in a school year
- Amount of times meals are served hot on non-toxic reusable items in a school year
Evaluate the program launch. Did it work? Did you achieve your goal? What would you do differently if you had to do it again?
Did you know?
Some consider trees and other crops as renewable sources, but the environmental impacts of farming these crops can have very long and negative effects on the local land and water - monocropping grasses/trees and clear cutting forests disrupts natural ecosystems and depletes nutrients in the soil.
STEP 12: Celebrate
You did it! Congratulations! Take a moment to reflect and appreciate the journey. You can announce the results to the school via morning announcements or another assembly. Make sure to give a shout out to all the stakeholders and allies and recognize any staff or students who played a key role - specifically appreciate the custodial and nutrition service staff. Try to encourage the school actions to ripple into the community outside of the school campus - use it as a launching point for other environmental health, or environmental actions.
Announce to the school their achievement:
- Challenge them to do better and go further
- Distribute incentives and rewards
- Make sure to encourage more folks to try out for the Green Team
- Quantify your success if you can (less cars on the road, will save the weight of 20 elephants from going into the landfill each year, etc.)
- Share it on social media
For your consideration
Consider these next steps after your launch:
- Setup a stakeholder meeting to discuss successes, challenges, and next steps.
- Invite the media in to see what is happening at the school. Local news loves these stories, sell it!
- Share it with Foodware@ceh.org we would love to hear about it.
Setting the long term goals and keeping it sustainable.
The long term goal should be 100% safe reusables for FSW. The goal of CEH is to have schools transition to safe reusable FSWs. Many schools and districts are not ready to go to 100% reusables, but might be able to shift a single FSW item, like cups, to reusable. Other schools might not have the infrastructure to break free of single-use FSW, but do not want to use polystyrene anymore. All of these small steps, which take effort to implement, move your school or district closer to 100% reusables. Having the conversation and meeting stakeholders opens the door to insist on other changes. Keep pushing for your goal, and remember, other schools and districts have done it, and yours can too.
Ditching Disposables A Toolkit for Healthier Foodware in K-12 Schools