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Zero Ziplocs: Packing Waste-Free Lunches For Your Kids

Drink pouches and plastic forks are so passe. This school year, discover the art of packing the waste-free lunch. It's good for the earth and your wallet – and it's easier than you think.

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The Eventual Farmer

Keri Middaugh of Ypsilanti began her journey to waste-free lunches when her daughter entered first grade. Every day, she would return home with a lunchbox full of wrappers and leftovers.

"She brought home every last bit of what I packed for her, and I quickly became aware of how much was going into the trash each day. … I was uncomfortable with this waste of food and money," says Middaugh, author of the children's picture book My Detroit Garden and founder of The Eventual Farmer. "Little by little we started making small changes, and now have almost no waste at lunchtime anymore."

These days, Middaugh not only packs trash-free lunches for her daughters, Abigail, 9, and Jocelyn, 6, she's on a campaign to help other families cut down on lunchtime waste, as well. Her blog, My Kitchen, My Vice, offers easy tips for making the transition, and she also makes and sells reusable sandwich and snack bags ($5 each) from her Eventual Farmer booth at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market at Kerrytown on Wednesdays during the school year.

"There has been such a positive response to the reusable lunch tools because so many people feel the same way we did, disappointed that our lunches were producing so much waste," she says. "I find that most people are open to the idea of making small changes for a greater good and are eager to share their ideas."

Peace, Love & Planet

Gina Adams-Levy, a Farmington mother of two and founder of the children's environmental nonprofit Peace, Love & Planet, says waste-free lunches are a way to get the whole family involved in conservation efforts.

"It brings awareness not only to the schools but transcends to the home as well, that our convenience-based society is actually taking a big toll on our environment," says Adams-Levy, who offers green resources and products on her website, peaceloveandplanet.org.

Among her many environmental efforts, Adams-Levy spearheaded Waste-Free Fridays at Gill Elementary in Farmington Hills as part of a National Geographic "Find Your Footprint" contest in 2011. Kids and parents worked together to pack waste-free fare, putting their trash into recycling and compost bins each day after lunch, then taking their empty containers and uneaten food back home. Their efforts earned them runner-up recognition in the nationwide competition.

"When the kids have to stand up and sort their own tray, and they can see how much they can recycle and how much they throw away, it's a great visual," Adams-Levy says.

Making hot lunches waste-free

Kathy Donohue, environmental educator for the Clinton County Department of Waste Management, is taking waste-free lunches a step further, spearheading efforts to apply the concept to local hot lunch programs.

To reduce hot lunch waste, Donohue says schools can schedule recess before lunch, since studies have shown children finish more of their food after playing. She also urges schools to trade in foam for reusable trays, and offer milk and condiment dispensers instead of pre-packaged servings. Finally, she suggests that hot lunch programs suspend the requirement that children take certain foods from the cafeteria line whether they plan to eat them or not.

Schavey Road Elementary School in DeWitt, just north of Lansing, has adopted some of Donohue's suggestions and cut lunchtime waste from 128 pounds to 35 pounds during a two-week trial period – a 75 percent reduction.

Donohue says school districts can save significant money by cutting down on trash disposal costs in addition to helping the environment. It's an uphill battle to change the politics and culture of public school hot lunch programs, but in the meantime, individual parents can make a difference by packing waste-free, Donohue says.

"We need to get back to a grass roots system where people are taking responsibility for the things that they do at the family level," she says. "It's an evolution, and you just do one step at a time."

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