Tenino Takes the Lead in Composting

By Bianca Fortis / For The Chronicle

As classmates hurry to lunch behind them, Katie Snyder, left, 10, and Chloe Regan, 9, hold the letter they sent to President Barack Obama about the school’s composting program, and the signed response they received shortly after.

As classmates hurry to lunch behind them, Katie Snyder, left, 10, and Chloe Regan, 9, hold the letter they sent to President Barack Obama about the school’s composting program, and the signed response they received shortly after.

TENINO – Katie Snyder and Chloe Regan didn’t actually expect President Barack Obama to write back to them.

But he did.

“I was kind of surprised he wrote back since he’s so busy,” Regan, 9, said. “But I was really happy that he did.”

In October, the two fourth graders wrote a letter to the president telling him about Food to Flowers, a food composting program used in schools throughout Thurston County.

Snyder, 10, said it was cool to get a response.

“It made me think we weren’t the only ones who cared about recycling,” she said. “Even the president cares.”

In the letter, the girls told the president they’d like to encourage restaurants across the United States to compost food and paper to cut down on trash in landfills.

The president didn’t respond directly to the subject of composting, but did tell the girls he appreciated them taking the time to write.

“Our country’s continued success will depend on your generation and young people like you give me great hope for the future,” the letter said.

The purpose of Food to Flowers, which started in 2007 and is managed by Thurston County’s Public Works department, is to prevent food waste, as well as manage what’s wasted as responsibly as possible, according to Program Coordinator Peter Guttchen. The goal is to find composting and recycling opportunities for leftover material.

Food and recyclables are sorted and collected in the lunchroom, then brought to Silver Springs Organics, a composting facility located near Rainier.

Guttchen said the benefits of the program go beyond diverting garbage out of landfills.

It helps schools improve their recycling programs and results in environmental benefits, such as energy savings and reduction in water use. It also helps students develop environmentally responsible habits.

“We design these programs, as much as we can, to be operated by students in the lunch room,” he said.

But what may be most enticing to schools is the cost savings. Guttchen estimates the average savings is between 15 and 20 percent at each school.

“It costs a lot less to have material collected for recycling and composting than to bring it 240 miles over the mountains to be buried in the Klickitat landfill,” he said.

Guttchen said it depends on the size of the school, but on average it takes three or four months to implement the program.

When a school is interested in joining the program, one of the first steps is to conduct an audit of the school’s food waste.

Program facilitators work with students to gather a full day’s worth of trash and determine how much of it can be composted or recycled.

“What we’ve discovered is that schools throw away a lot of food,” he said. “Schools are like mini-cities.”

In elementary schools, 80 to 90 percent of what schools throw away is food, Guttchen said.

Later, specific steps are taken to prevent waste, such as eliminating straws and using real silverware.

Guttchen said Olympia High School now uses milk dispensers, which are estimated to have removed 119,000 milk cartons from the waste stream. In elementary schools, durable plastic tumblers are used to serve students milk, which helps ensure they’re getting their daily requirement.

“Kids think the milk tastes a lot better,” Guttchen said. “And it wastes less milk.”

Students who don’t eat cafeteria food are encouraged to pack a waste-free lunch. That includes bringing reusable Tupperware containers for sandwiches, bringing a thermos and using a lunchbox or a paper bag that can be recycled.

Guttchen said implementing the program hasn’t come without some challenges, which include getting custodians, food services staff and administrators working together, as well as school administrators just finding the time to meet with program coordinators.

But still, there are more than 30 schools in Thurston County with a recycling and composting program; Tenino is the first school district in which all of its schools have implemented the program.

Tenino has been a leader, he said, giving much of the credit to Teresa Stephens, the district’s food services director.

He said Stephens developed an idea to use caddies to transport condiment dispensers between the classrooms where students each lunch.

“That provided the opportunity to completely eliminate condiment packets,” Guttchen said. “That’s something she came up with on her own. She shared those lessons with other schools and helped them improve their programs and provide options to the challenges they were facing.”

Stephens said she’s been very involved with the program, and even toured the composting plant.

“I think it’s a great program,” she said. “It’s good for the environment, good for their future and it’s also teaching them how to save recycle and save things too. I think we’re teaching kids the best message we can teach them.”

Snyder and Regan still want others across the country to recycle and compost.

The two are considering writing to Gov. Chris Gregoire to get her to encourage schools around the state to adopt a program like Food to Flowers.

“It might be easier than America,” Snyder said.

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