Sodexo at Springfield public schools is working toward a greener future, one tray at a time

Sodexo has eliminated Styrofoam trays at Springfield Renaissance School thanks to an initiative led by students.
Stack of trays
The team launched compostable trays at Springfield Renaissance School on Nov. 9. | Photo: Shutterstock.

In a presentation from students in the Environmental Science program at Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, Mass., styrofoam trays were stacked up and showcased. The display included about 900 trays, and the students were pointing out a waste problem at the school.

“It was quite an impressive display and presentation by the students,” said Roger Weger, Sodexo’s resident district manager for Springfield Public Schools. “And they went through all of the concerns with these trays that are filling up our landfills and basically the ask was for us to see if there was a compostable tray that we could introduce into their school as a way to reduce the amount of waste going into landfills.”

Prior to the presentation, the team had received about 200 letters from students requesting a solution for the tray situation at the school.

The team was quite impressed with the presentation and jumped into action, trying to find solutions. Throughout the summer, the team began researching, trying to find manufacturers who could provide a compostable tray at a cost-friendly price point.

Eventually, the team identified a local manufacturer that had the right product. Now it was time for Weger and the foodservice team to put together their presentation for students.

“It was basically an opportunity for their voice to be heard, to take the initiative on a project and tell their story in such a compelling way that actually saw action coming back in a positive form,” said Weger.

On Nov. 9, the team officially launched the trays at Renaissance, effectively eliminating Styrofoam from its operation.

“It has been eye opening. And it has been students feeling that their voices have been heard,” said Weger.  “And we feel that this was a great opportunity for us to partner with the students, as well as make a tangible commitment to a greener future, one tray at a time.”

Now, Sodexo and Springfield Public Schools are working on rolling out the compostable trays to other schools in their system, starting with the high schools.

While cost was definitely a consideration during the research process, the trays only amount to a couple cents more per tray and Weger said the benefits outweigh the additional cost.

“These are really costs that we've looked at it and we can absorb it within the meal reimbursement that we receive from the state,” said Weger. “And it seems to be again, well received by the students at Springfield Renaissance.”

Moving forward, Weger is confident the students will continue to have a voice at the school, working together on sustainability problems. Another area the team may address in the future is looking at what type of material is used on sandwich and salad containers.

Committed to sustainability

Springfield Public Schools sustainability mission doesn’t stop at the walls of its cafeterias. Another initiative the team has implemented is the use of an anaerobic digester that turns the waste from the Culinary Nutrition Center, the facility where the school system's meals are prepared,  into energy that lights homes. And a byproduct of the process is used as a fertilizer for crops at a local farm.

“Our waste goes in there with the waste from the cows and it creates this energy that actually about 1600 homes are powered from,” said Weger.  “That's an amazing cycle in terms of the food going through the system, and then going back to be fertilizer for the crops.”

Student ambassador program bridges the gap

Student involvement is important for the team at Springfield Public Schools. Last year, the team launched a student ambassador program. Student representatives are given the opportunity to provide feedback to dining services. Weger describes it as a listening post. The ambassadors provide feedback as to how well the meals are being received and also provide their input as to what the team could be doing better.

“We rely on their input to know, to make sure that we're on the right track and meeting their needs,” said Weger.

In the future, Weger hopes to bring those student ambassadors into the Culinary Nutrition Center and allow them to tour the space.

“And you know, continue the dialogue that we have with them, but actually take them on a tour of the of the facility of where their meals are prepared,” said Weger. “We have 70 different menu items that we actually scratch prepare here.”

The team produces up to 18,000 meals a day out of the space.

“When they come in and they see where their food is being prepared and how it's being prepared, they come away with a totally different appreciation for the food that we're serving,” said Weger.