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Lilburn Mom to Gwinnett Schools: 'Stop Using Styrofoam Trays'

Beth Remmes, a Lilburn mom of two, cannot understand why the Gwinnett County schools use plastic foam trays, which clutter the environment for centuries. She wants to do something about it.

Beth Remmes, a Lilburn mother of two students at Camp Creek Elementary, is beside herself.

Day after day she knows that her children are eating out of plastic foam trays -- which are made of a consistency that does not degrade easily in the environment, taking some 500 years to wither to nothing.

-- What do you think of plastic foam trays being used to serve meals to school students? Let us know in the comment section. --

So, she decided to do something about it, and started a petition that she hopes draws the attention of school officials. There's more than 500 signatures on the Change.org petition already. 

Remmes is not the first person to try kicking Styrofoam to the curb. Just this summer, the second largest school district in the country -- Los Angeles Unified School District -- finally decided to eliminate them, following a loud call for change by some middle school students and parents.

Los Angeles school officials spoke of wanting to be a leader in efforts to save the environment. And, the Lilburn mom wants Gwinnett -- the largest school district in Georgia -- to also think along those lines.

Want to read Remmes' full petition and add your name to the list of supporters, click here.

Patch tracked down Remmes and asked her a few questions about her efforts. Here's the conversation.

Patch: What prompted you to start the petition?

Remmes: My children are in second grade and fifth grade at Camp Creek Elementary. Not long after my daughter started school, they were at least recycling the trays, but when that proved to be a loss for the recycling companies, the trays all went into the trash again.

When I go to school (to) visit my children at lunch time, I leave the cafeteria feeling nauseous, with a splitting headache, because the amount of waste literally makes me sick to my stomach. It is not just me who is bothered by all of the waste, and it isn't just happening at our school.

To my knowledge, this is what it is like at all the public schools in the county. Whenever the school cafeteria comes up in discussions, one of the first things people always say is "I wish we could get rid of the Styrofoam trays."

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Patch: Have you talked to Gwinnett County school officials regarding your concerns?

Remmes: I have talked with people at the school, but it seems like their hands are tied because these decisions are often made by the county. A year ago, I was able to track down the supplier and find out that they offer biodegradable and compostable options, but I am not privy to what the school currently pays for the trays, so I do not have a basis for comparison.

Ideally I would have liked to go the county with a breakdown of all of the numbers and a list of affordable solutions, but quite honestly, after chasing this issue for the last few years, I think that the time has come to ask the county to give us a report with the costs and alternatives.

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Patch: Why do you suppose the use of Styrofoam trays persists?

Remmes: I'm sure the county believes that Styrofoam trays are the least expensive option. However, the initial cost does not factor in the environmental cost, health risks, or the downside of teaching our children that it is preferable to use disposables on a daily basis. I understand that the budget for schools is tight, but I would at least like to see some alternatives presented.

Also, with such a large school system, the supplier must make a substantial amount of money from the orders. They may be willing to negotiate a similar price for a less toxic alternative. Or, it may be affordable to create a job, and hire someone part-time to wash the trays. My understanding is that many of the schools already own the reusable trays.

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Patch: When would you like to have the entire school district to replace what they are doing with reusable trays?

Remmes: My guess is that budgets and orders have already been planned for this school year. However, it would be great to start off fall 2013 with reusable or biodegradable trays.

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Patch: If no one with decision-making power listens to this petition, will you continue your efforts?

Remmes: At the very least, I would like to see transparency in this process. I would love to have a published report available with a follow-up meeting which covers: 1. How are decisions made? 2. What is the cost?  3. What is the cost of the alternatives? 

Then I would like the decision makers to be willing to engage in creative problem solving with concerned parents, teachers, faculty and students to find a better alternative. In my heart, I can't believe that this is the best we can do for our children.

(Editor's Note: If a query is answered, Patch will follow up this individual Q&A with a response from Gwinnett County Public Schools.)

monteal purcella September 28, 2012 at 11:15 AM
Disposeable trays are rediculious ..reuseable ones are the best option ! For any home or school ! Unfortunately the poor quality food on the trays is an even larger concern for me ! It all comes down to the profit made for the school we feed our children something we wouldent feed our dogs on trays that fill our landfills ! Life.familyeducation.com/lunch/school ...or www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/05/pink-slime-for-school-lun_1322335.html ... The usda is a joke we eat garbage and chemicals others reject as dangerous because the usda is in the pockets of big buisness ! And whats worse is we feed it to our children !
Bonnie September 28, 2012 at 11:22 AM
Children could bring healthy lunches in reusable lunch boxes from home.
monteal purcella September 28, 2012 at 12:35 PM
Yes bonnie thats what my children do ..i bet if there were enough regular lunch eaters who switched to a home lunch in a lunch box it would let the county know that this is important and it will effect there profits enough maybe they will change it ..you could call it an "eat in " instead of a "sit in "
Estrella Velazquez September 28, 2012 at 12:44 PM
While the use of Styrofoam trays is ecologically irresponsible, reusable trays have their own problems. Washing those trays uses hundreds of gallons of precious water and cleaning solution. If we want to come up with a truly environmentally friendly solution we'd have to consider reclaiming the water used, filtering it and using it in other ways. Compostable or biodegradable trays are an easier solution and could even serve as an opportunity to teach kids about the importance of reducing waste. Kids who's parents can afford it and have the time probably should bring their lunches. They'd probably get better nutrition that way. However, as I understand it, many kids in the public school system often get the best meal of their day at school. When the home life can't supply adequate sustenance, it falls on the public school system to do what it can. It may not be a balanced meal with all the nutrition that a growing body and mind needs to excel, but it is food. What I'm saying is that there are *many* factors that affect this seemingly simple idea: public schools should provide kids with lunch.
Kelly Blake September 28, 2012 at 12:51 PM
Thanks Beth Rhames for helping to detoxify our Gwinnett county schools! The chemicals in styrofoam are dangerous for our children and my husband ( who is a teacher) to eat off. Not only is styrofoam a disaster to our environment it is even more disasterous to our family's health for generations to come.
Bonnie September 28, 2012 at 01:08 PM
You are so right! It is very complicated. If children bring lunches, schools lose money. On the other hand, they don't have to buy as much food. That means fewer people are needed in the cafeteria. Less staff means more people out of work. Round and round it goes.
monteal purcella September 28, 2012 at 01:08 PM
Yes estrella this is one of the most important reasons why the food served at school should be healthy because so many children depend on it for their nutrition for many students breackfast and lunch ...i dont know if any of you have eaten the food from the cafertias ..but its disquationg
Charles September 28, 2012 at 06:00 PM
I understood that most cafeterias in Gwinnett already used cornstarch biodegradable trays. These are actually better than paper trays. We used to collect all the styrofoam trays after lunch a few years ago and recycle them. But with tthe switch over to cornstarch trays we didn;t have to do that anymore. So I think this is much ado about nothing. GCPS has already addressed that issue.
Penny Brown September 28, 2012 at 10:52 PM
I remember my children participated in an experiment in a Gwinnett County science class years ago (remember "100 Things You Can Do To Save the Earth?"). The class buried an apple core and a styrofoam cup. A few months later they discovered the apple core was gone and the cup was unchanged. Guess they can't do that experiment anymore.
Mandy McManus September 29, 2012 at 12:31 AM
I am proud of Beth for starting this petiton and I have already signed it. We need to find a solution and eliminate styrofoam from our kids lives. Besides the health issue and the environmental issues, I think the most important issue here is what we are teaching our kids...that it is okay to use things and throw them away. They need to get recycling into their daily lives and be taught that when you throw something away it doesn't just magically disappear, especially styrofoam.
Bonnie September 29, 2012 at 01:56 AM
When I was teaching, we had a group come in for an assembly about recycling. They sang a cute song, "There's No Such Thing as Away," showing us that when we throw it "away," we're really just putting it some place else. Interesting idea and very true. Made us all think.
Robert Thomas. Sr. September 29, 2012 at 02:25 AM
I'm tempted to suggest to those who worry about this non-issue that they should get a life, but less perjoratively Styrofoam trays crumbled up would make a pretty good addition to the clay soils in these parts by lightening it forever. Also, here's a little anecdote - when the Dems were the majority in the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi insisted on recyclable ware in the cafeteria. When the Repubs took over and ended that policy the savings were $500,000 per annum. We have about 185,000 students in the GCPS - the House has 435 members plus their guests and the public. Not enough facts here to do the arithmetic but something to keep in mind. Perhaps the more pertinent issue re school cafeteria food is the advent of Obamafood with its limited fat and calories. Another example o " I'm from the government and I'm here to help you" - poorer children may get a significant percentage of their calories from school food, and it's absolutely essential for children under 10 that, while they should avoid excessive fat, they need a good bit of fat for physical and especially brain development. In fact, with its large number or poor, this is becoming a large issue in NYC, but the Left's response will likely be a modern analogue to the famous "Let then eat cake."
Bonnie September 29, 2012 at 02:35 AM
I agree with you. Children need to eat! First we worried about them being hungry, so we gave them free lunch, then free breakfast. Now we worry that they're eating too much. Maybe we're just worrying too much!
Beth Remmes September 29, 2012 at 03:32 AM
Charles I would love to find out more information about the cornstarch trays. Do you know which schools are using them. I attend "green" meetings every year with teachers from schools across the county and this topic is the #1 complaint. No one has ever said that their schools use cornstarch instead of styrofoam.
chris clark October 05, 2012 at 07:50 PM
That is a rather naive statement and really does not address how the school is going to serve lunches to kids. All kids will NEVER bring lunches form home. You may be sending lunches with your kids, but lot's of people don't. Do you have any idea of how many free lunches - and breakfasts - are served every day? Assuming that those parents really can not afford to feed their children, how will they be sending a "healthy lunch in a reusable lunch box form home?" That's just not an answer to anything in the real world.
chris clark October 05, 2012 at 07:58 PM
And as I commented to Bonnie's post - that is not the real world. While my kids do bring lunches from home on most days, even they, on occasion eat school lunches. Besides all that, I'm guessing that neither of you has spent much time at school and has a clue of what the population looks like. Some of the schools around here have between 30-50% free lunches! Those kids will NOT be bringing anything from home. And they are usually also getting breakfast at school (at least that's not served on trays.) While your notion is all well and good, it won't have any real impact. The county needs to decide that it is important and worth changing - we need to keep talking to them and pushing for change.
chris clark October 05, 2012 at 08:10 PM
Are you for real? Have you been in an elementary school lately and seen the amount of OBESE children? And I am not talking a little bit over weight, I'm talking full out obese. There is no reason that any of the kids need chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry milk - plain skim milk is appropriate for all nutritional needs without adding unnecessary calories. Also, daily ice creams available for purchase are also of NO nutritional benefit to any of the kids. French fries, for any age group, are not vegetables, nor are they nutritious. And these are the things you will find in the cafeterias at an elementary school. Kids do not need additional empty fats or sugar, they need food that is diverse and nutritious. The appropriate foods, in the appropriate amounts will provide them with the fats and calories that their bodies actually need.
Bonnie October 05, 2012 at 08:31 PM
I am for real. I have been involved in Gwinnett County schools since 1975, sending my children to them and teaching in them. I am not naive. I am, however, completely unwilling to engage in discussions which are combative. You will have to work on this issue with someone else. I hope you're able to calm down first.
chris clark October 05, 2012 at 09:26 PM
I am not intending to be combative, number one, and, number two...this comment was really attached to Mr Thomas' comment about needing to add more fat into the kids lunches. If you are in the school right now, you know that I am right when I say that there are a frightening amount of obese young kids these days. They don't need more fat in their lunches - they need well rounded nutritious meals that they will eat. I can't tell you how disturbing it is to see what gets thrown out at lunches and what gets eaten. Slap a piece of pizza and an apple on their plate, pizza gets eaten, apple goes in the trash..........just saying.
chris clark October 05, 2012 at 09:31 PM
And, bonnie, I'd like to also point out that Robert Thomas. Sr., in his misguided belief of what kids need nutritionally, also used this thread as an opportunity to press his political agenda. That is completely off topic...................and really so was the whole discussion about "nutritional" food.........but whatever, I'd love it if the county could come up with a better alternative to Styrofoam serving trays.

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