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Thanks to kindergarten teacher Ellen Hunter, students at Monroe Elementary are becoming experts on food waste management through a popular, lunchtime program that has them monitoring cafeteria food and trash to ensure everything is routed to the right place. The program has been a smash success, and even recently earned a $4,500 grant that will allow Hunter to grow Monroe’s sustainability program even further.

A teacher at Monroe for more than a decade, Hunter explains in the Q&A below how the student “Green Team” has transformed the campus, and as Monroe Principal Brian Naughton puts it: “changed a whole generation of students on how they think about food waste.”

Q: How did this project come to be?

Hunter: I wanted to create awareness around the vast amount of food waste we see every day at school and actually try to do something about it.  Since food is something we make choices about every day, what better area to focus on when teaching our students about sustainable practices and ways to reduce our carbon footprint than through the food they eat. (Hunter partnered with the City of Santa Barbara to create an action plan.) We started on the first day of school by being in the cafeteria every day and training the students on which bin their lunch waste should go into.  Some students who showed an interest in helping out, so we set up a weekly schedule for student lunchtime monitors, the “Green Team.” Their main goal is to keep the yellow bin clean – that is, only food scraps, napkins, and the paper trays can be in there. This way, it will actually be taken by the City of Santa Barbara/Marborg and be composted instead of going into the landfill and releasing methane.  Students have become quite savvy at this.

Q: How many kids participate and what are they learning about waste and food through their participation?

Hunter: The whole school technically participates because each student every day is responsible for disposing of their own lunch waste.  Kids no longer blindly dump their entire lunch waste into the trash. They stop and think where each piece of waste goes. We have also done a lot of education around mindfully choosing the food you put on your plate to begin with…. that is,  don’t take five carrots or cucumbers if you are only going to eat one and just throw the rest away. Not only will this reduce what goes in the landfill but also save the district money in the long run if we cut back on food waste. Another cool learning opportunity is that we have a vermicompost bin that is managed by Explore Ecology and they use some of our own food scraps for the vermicompost, which in turn produces rich soil that we use in our school Garden.  So students have the chance to see the entire loop.

Q: Would you like to see the program expanded and grow?

Hunter: I am thankful that the Santa Barbara Education Foundation awarded a grant to help expand the goals of the Green Team and overall sustainable efforts at Monroe.  These funds are helping to purchase supplies needed to further support the vermicompost and school gardens at Monroe, as well as some items to expand our Green Team efforts in the cafeteria.  I would love to see the district put more of a focus on food waste and composting to go along with the climate change resolution they signed a year ago. There is just so much food waste on all our campuses, I feel it’s an easy area to educate on, and make a significant difference in creating a generation of sustainable minded students.

Q: And what do Monroe students say about this program?

Jeremy Urrutia- 4th grade: “I think the Earth deserves good stuff from us, just how the Earth gives us good stuff.  We should be composting everyday so the landfill doesn’t stink so much.”

Wyatt Burwell- 2nd grade-: “The Green Team is important to stop climate change and keep our school clean. I wanted to be part of it to help and because my brother is doing it too.”