Jefferson Elementary School wins a $1,000 grant from Grades of Green for its trash-free lunch program. Coast Christian School in North Redondo is also a finalist.  This year, about a dozen schools across Los Angeles County attempted to go trash-free at lunch in hopes of winning a $1,000 grant from Manhattan Beach-based Grades of Green, an organization dedicated to making schools more environmentally aware.

The participants were narrowed down to three finalists—Jefferson Elementary School and Coast Christian School in North Redondo Beach and Trinity Lutheran School in Whittier—with Jefferson ultimately taking the top prize. Judges from Grades of Green visited the three schools Monday to evaluate their programs. Representatives at both Redondo schools said getting the students involved was an integral part of their program.

“It’s been really helpful … you know, there’s nothing like peer pressure,” joked Danielle Spangler, the chairwoman of Jefferson’s Green Committee. She later told, “The kids have been so excited” about the program. At the elementary school, children who have signed up to be “Green Ambassadors” help out with sorting the trash on Trash-Free Tuesdays as well as participate in Walk to School Wednesdays.

Since the school began its trash-free lunches program in earnest, the number of students participating has more than doubled, and the school has gone from producing 16 bags of trash at lunchtime daily at the beginning of the year to two bags daily now. Instead of being sent to the landfill, plastic bottles and Capri-Sun containers are recycled through Jefferson parent David Felix’s Repocycle recycling business. Felix collects the recyclables and brings them to a recycling center. Of the money he receives for the goods, he donates a portion back to the school.

Additionally, Spangler is looking to institute a composting program at the school. A tumbler—where students can put their fruit and vegetable waste—will arrive “any day now,” she said. The compost will be used to fertilize the school’s garden, which must be replanted after construction on campus. She also said that the school plans to put the $1,000 grant toward the  garden and composting program.

Students said the program is making a difference. “My friend used to never do trash-free lunch … and now she totally does,” said fourth-grade student Sophia Turcot. Sophia also said that her own family now has an additional recycling bin at home.

Principal Kara Heinrich agreed.”We’ve become more conscientious,” she said. While Jefferson’s composting program is in the beginning stages, Coast Christian School’s is booming. The K-8 school has three composting bins—a small one with worms, a medium-sized bin for fruits and vegetables on Trash-Free Tuesdays and a large bin for all other food waste, according to Coast Christian Grades of Green Co-Chair Lynn Dickson-Mesinas.

The compost feeds the vegetable garden that the students tend every Thursday. The school—which will be known as Valor Christian Academy next year—also has a
native plant garden on the hill behind it. “Our idea is to try not to use any water on the hillside to try to let it grow on its own,” said Dickson-Mesinas.

At lunch, the older students help the youngest students sort their waste into recyclables, liquids, food waste and (if it’s a trash-free lunch day) fruits and vegetables. Coast Christian now only throws out four bags of trash per day for the entire school—and the trash isn’t just from lunch. “It’s been
very exciting to see the number of bags drop so far, so fast,” said Zipporah Kiger, the chairwoman of Grades of Green for Coast Christian.

Both Dickson-Mesinas at Coast Christian and Spangler at Jefferson praised Athens Services, which became Redondo’s waste disposal contractor last summer, for its commitment to recycling and composting. “They go out of their way to give us what (we) need,” Dickson-Mesinas said.

In a news release from Grades of Green, organization Co-Director Lisa Coppedge called the entire trash-free lunch program a “huge success.” “It’s exciting to see thousands of kids learn how fun and easy it is to reduce trash and make a real difference for the environment,” she said.

In honor of its win, 13-year-old actor Nolan Gould of ABC’s Modern Family will present Jefferson with the $1,000 grant Tuesday. “I am totally impressed by what Jefferson has accomplished,” Gould said in the news release. They not only cut their lunchtime trash by over 87 percent, they’ve taught hundreds of kids how to reuse and recycle. I wish every school in America would do what they’ve done.”