03/31/2011 09:42 pm ET Updated May 31, 2011

Zero Waste Total Impact: Transforming School Lunch

Eight years ago, Gary Giberson, Founder of New Jersey-based Sustainable Fare and Director of Dining at the Lawrenceville School, set out to make the school's lunchroom more sustainable. This meant not only challenging the way that kids ate but also how they experienced lunch both as diners and as learners. Lawrenceville School had Giberson cooking up new foods for kids, from organic eggs to quinoa, and using it as a way to teach kids to be more aware about their choices and their impact.

Giberson didn't always have sustainability on his mind. As a chef, he would try menus mostly because they sounded good. Giberson wasn't thinking about where each ingredient came from, who had grown it, in which season it grew naturally, or how it was being transported. But, all that changed when Giberson was invited to be a part of his campus's "go green" initiative. Giberson describes that moment as a big awakening, "Once I realized how much waste the dining center created, I realized it is not just the food, but also the energy that goes into producing and transporting it." He began to understand that the decisions he made about feeding one thousand students every day, really did have an impact. In the school, he could make changes that were small enough to manage but large enough to matter. And, he could help students make decisions that were good for their bodies and for the planet. Giberson has not looked at feeding the students the same way since.

One of Giberson's first accomplishments was purchasing apples from a local orchard. He was able to bring in local items, forge stronger relationships with local farmers, and have the apples packaged the way that he wanted -- in bushel baskets that had zero waste. It was part of Giberson's "one percent rule," incremental changes that, when taken together, would start to add up to a zero-waste lunchroom. The school eliminated trays and started to compost food waste. They restructured the lunch staff so that they were no longer tending to the "magic window," the conveyor belt system where the food waste magically disappears from the diner's view. Instead, with staff and faculty scraping their own plates, the lunch staff were free to do something novel: prepare food. Lunch staff were able to do more hands on food processing and food prep, which in turn, saved them money. As Giberson explains, because "Our labor was being utilized to peel and cut our own carrot and celery sticks," they didn't have to buy pre-processed food. Shifting staff toward meal preparation and cooking helped to provide them with jobs that had a sense of pride in the skills that they developed. It was more rewarding for the staff to make something than it was to take something out of a box and put it in the oven. Giberson shared that, "There was a new honesty in the food, staff could look the students in the eyes and say, 'Try this, I made it.'"

Success for Giberson has not only led to changes in school lunches but also changes in school curriculum. Using locally raised chicken instead of factory raised chicken from 1500 miles away, students were able to actually track their impact. Similarly, switching from traditional hamburgers coming from a mix of countless animals, students could compare their choice to use beef from one farm in Lancaster Valley, Penn. -- just a state away. They created graphics that they integrated into an environmental studies class, which was measuring the school's carbon footprint. Students could measure the carbon miles and carbon output and their calculations showed that their choices and their actions really did have an impact.

Like most of those who are leading the way in sustainability, Giberson started with uncertainties and questions: Do our actions make a difference? How much impact can one person have? Then, he took it a step further and considered what would happen if, as a school community -- students, faculty, and staff -- worked together to find ways to change how they fed the school entirely. He found that students were aching to make a difference in their lives, in their schools, and in their world. And when he really engaged students in deep questioning about their choices, it not only changed the way students ate but also their sense of power and efficacy.

Too often, students are overwhelmed with the complexities of global warming, environmental degradation, and social injustices. At least through their food choices students felt that they could take control and make a difference. They liked the idea of integrating a more local and environmentally friendly food system into the school, a place that they had influence. The students began to realize that each choice they make has a big impact on the world, especially when they banded together and acted collectively. And they realized that they could plan, hypothesize, measure, and track that impact. Armed with new knowledge and tastes, students could take action

Energy, recycling, water, and compost -- these are all areas where Giberson has seen major changes at the school. This is the school's first full year of implementing a Zero Waste Zone at their Irwin Dining Center. Purchasing choices have helped reduce a significant amount of waste that results from packaging. And they now compost all of their food and cardboard scrap. The best part is that by bringing the students on board from the beginning, the project gained real momentum. Students designed posters and signage for the project, identifying items that aren't compostable or recyclable. And with the help of the students the program is completely self-regulatory. One step at a time, they've used the "one percent rule" to reduce the dining center's waste by 80 percent.