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Article Published June 10, 2019
So Long, Styrofoam: Student-Led Effort Brings Biodegradable Lunch Trays to Branford Public Schools
Pam Johnson, Senior Staff Writer

Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of four fourth graders, Styrofoam lunch trays will be a thing of the past at Branford Public Schools. When school resumes on September 3, the district will be using new, eco-friendly trays in every building.

The move to kick Styrofoam out of the BPS waste stream started as the seed of an idea shared by Tisko Elementary School students Madelaine Aguilar, Ella Jumps, Caitlin Reilley and Arianna Yeh in an opinion writing unit, assigned by teacher Christie Glazewski.

Following up on their idea over the coming weeks, the girls researched, trial-tested and sourced economic options; including a test-run with sugarcane-based trays used during a school lunch wave.  They gathered everything they learned into a polished presentation, and took meetings with Tikso principal Jim O'Connor, the BPS Food Advisory Committee, BPS Chief Operating Officer Don Neel and Director of Food Services John Turenne.

On June 5, with their families in attendance and their teacher and principal there to cheer them on, Aguilar, Jumps, Reilley and Yeh brought their presentation—a combination of facts, findings and even details on bill working its way through legislation in Hartford --  to a special meeting of the Board of Education (BOE) Personnel & Finance Committee.

After 20 minutes of discussion, Powerpoint slides, and even sharing a hands-on demonstration of how one type of eco-friendly tray begins to break down after 24 hours of water exposure, the girls had their answer from Neel.

While the idea of pulling Styrofoam trays from the public schools wasn't a "new concern," Neel said, thanks to the impressive work of the students, combined with leadership by Tureen creating a "modest" surplus, "...we will not be using Styrofoam trays in Branford Public Schools next year."

Neel said cost saving measures implemented by Turenne and a contract-negotiated surplus which BPS retains with the district's food services provider, Chartwells, will allow the district to cover what he anticipates will be a slightly elevated cost for the new, biodegradable trays that will be used beginning next year.

"The girls did quite a bit of research on their own and came up with estimates of cost [that] will be somewhat more; but the food service program is in a healthy financial position such that we'll be able to absorb that cost," Neel told Zip06/The Sound. "We're still exploring a couple of different options. But in any event we will be using a biodegradable tray next year as a result of the effort of four fourth graders."

The district will continue to incorporate the practice of purchasing and using eco-friendly lunch trays in the coming years.

Speaking at the June 5 meeting, Neel said he had to note that one of the students' project funding suggestions (charging an additional 25 cents for ice cream cones) was an impressive utilization of an economic measure known as "...price elasticity of demand."

Superintendent of Schools Hamlet Hernandez said the students' exemplary accomplishment was a perfect demonstration of BPS teaching and learning practices.

"This really is an embodiment of what we try to do with Branford Public Schools; which is to encourage students to explore things that they are interested in, follow their passion, get involved and articulate their learning and also their opinions, and, really, civically, to hopefully create change; and change that is positive," said Hernandez.

Neel told Zip06/The Sound being able to support this student-generated, grassroots effort was definitely a highlight of the school year for him.

"I don't get as many opportunities as I would like to see our students in action," said Neel. "This was a wonderful project, where they took a subject that was very important to them, they utilized all the skills that we teach them; and I'm absolutely thrilled we're able to accommodate their recommendation."