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A styrofoam lunch tray with entrees, on display in the Nettelhorst Elementary School lunchroom in Chicago, Ill.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: For all the focus on the food that goes on school trays, there's more attention being paid now to the trays themselves. The hard plastic trays most of us grew up with are largely a thing of the past. Chicago Public Radio's Linda Lutton reports.


LINDA LUTTON: The students at Waters Elementary School in Chicago plant vegetables behind the school. They have compost bins and separate their lunchtime trash. So it's hard for children here to stomach the Styrofoam trays lunch is served on.

Nine-year-old Alexander Conway is just a little taller than the garbage can where kids toss their trays.

ALEXANDER CONWAY: This is just going to the landfill. So we need to help our environment and get some new plates and not these styrofoam.

Chicago schools use almost a quarter of a million polystyrene trays a day. The kids at Waters figured out that in a year, that's enough trays to pave a path to the moon. But tight school budgets make change unlikely.

Here's schools spokeswoman Monique Bond.

MONIQUE BOND: Everyone wants to do the right thing and have the healthiest choices, the healthiest environment for our students, but for us as a district it all boils down to cost.

Schools can buy 500 foam trays for about $20. Biodegradable trays can cost four times that. Over the years, schools have gotten rid of hard plastic trays to save on labor costs. Many don't have dishwashers or drying racks anymore, so going back to the way things used to be isn't easy.

But some districts are trying. Portland, Ore., is moving all its elementary schools to "permanent ware."

KRISTY OBBINK: The extra expense in paying for our employees to wash those trays will equate to a few hundred thousand dollars.

Kristy Obbink is nutrition services director at Portland Public Schools. Obbink's budget allows for $2.70 per meal. That has to pay for everything, from cheese pizza to employee benefits.

OBBINK: I have to make the really tough decisions as to whether or not to put the money into the food on the plate, or put the money into washing the plates.

And like other school lunch programs across the country, Obbink's budget
is expected to break even.

In Chicago, I'm Linda Lutton for Marketplace.

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