Aspen Elementary School Serves Up Something New: Zero Waste Lunches

From left, Aspen Elementary School Cafeteria Manager Patrick Jaramillo, Principal Michele Altherr and Director of Dining Services for Chartwell K12 Laurence Peña stand in front of the many thank you letters students have written in appreciation of Aspen’s zero waste lunch program. Photo by Kirsten Laskey/
Los Alamos Daily Post

Students in Los Alamos Public Schools’ Eco Clubs came up with a great idea last year; to institute a zero-waste school lunch program.
The idea gathered more momentum to be implemented at Aspen Elementary School during a meeting between Principal Michele Altherr and Director of Dining Services for Chartwell K12 Laurence Peña.

Developing the program started during the summer and Altherr worked on funding the program through the school’s budget.
The school coordinated with Chartwells K12 staff and teachers to transition the students to the new change.

Just what makes Aspen Elementary’s program zero waste?
Foam trays were replaced with plastic, reusable trays. In addition, to cut down on food waste, a salad bar is made available to students so they can choose which fruits and vegetables to eat and how much they want to eat.

The lunch program in the school district is contracted through Chartwells K12. Peña said Aspen Elementary “is the only elementary school that we have that is fully zero waste.”
Peña said at first, he was skeptical. The cost alone for such a program seemed daunting, he said.

However, his own daughter, who happens to attend Aspen Elementary, changed his mind.
Peña said he realized that he wanted to ensure the world would still be there for his daughter.
“It was my 5-year-old daughter,” he said. “It was her that really made me see the light.”
The results have been impressive.
Peña said food waste “has gone down significantly.”
Altherr added that 12 bags of trash were filled daily from the school’s lunches last year. This year, she said, that number has been cut in half to six bags of trash a day.
This is impressive considering 800 students are served lunch a week and between 160-175 meals are served a day.
“What we reduce here is amazing,” Peña said.

It is not just the reduction of trash; the program also has made an impact on educating students about recycling correctly and ways they can reduce waste. For instance, the Green School Team advocated for their peers to bring their own mugs for hot drinks rather than using Styrofoam cups, Peña said.
“The kids are really buying into this,” he said.
Peña also has made revisions to the food served at the school.
Now available to students are natural, organic products, along with non-GMO food and food that has been grown sustainably. Altherr said she is really pleased with the program’s results as well as Peña’s and his staff’s work.

“I think it’s been very successful. We worked hard to make sure the new system works by teaching the students how to use trays and a salad bar,” she said. “I feel they are doing a great job with serving themselves and returning their used trays.”

She added that kids are eating more vegetables and happily, “The children are really pleased with the variety of fruit and vegetable options each day.”

Cafeteria Manager Patrick Jaramillo agreed.
“It’s been awesome,” he said. “The main thing is the kids – how much they love the salad and they like the new trays.”
Peña credited the school’s administration for making the program work.
“One of the things that got this going was the support we received from the administration … the administration was really what helped make this happen,” Peña said.

It’s not just the lunch program that is being addressed at the school. Altherr said a number of activities are planned such as crayon recycling, an Upcycle Art Show, a Leave No Trace Playground Challenge, and a Classroom Mug Challenge.

“We are working on raising awareness about our trash and how students can make a difference and help the Earth,” she said.
The idea is catching on.
Los Alamos Middle School is working to serve up its own zero waste lunch program, and food service has replaced all paper goods with eco-friendly products. As an example, bamboo straws are now used in place of plastic straws. Food is served on plates made of recycled material or are decomposable. Peña said the hope is to have all the elementary schools and middle school serving up Zero Waste lunches in one to two years.
He added that Chartwells is fully on board with the Zero Waste in Food Service. In fact, Peña said he is working with his company’s director of sustainability at Northwestern to develop best practices for a new approach to sustainability with Chartwells K12.

Using the new reusable plastic lunch trays, Aspen Elementary School Cafeteria Manager Patrick Jaramillo demonstrates how the school cafeteria’s dishwasher works. Photo by Kirsten Laskey/
An Aspen Elementary School student browses the options at the new salad bar. Photo by Kirsten Laskey/
Students enjoy the zero waste lunch at Aspen Elementary School. Photo by Kirsten Laskey/