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The Clackamas district school becomes first in the state to replace traditional cartons; hopes others will follow suit

Students at William Knight Elementary in Canby fill their own milk from a brand-new dispenser, an anomaly in Oregon public schools. Canby hopes to see the initiative grow, to reduce both milk carton trash and wasted milk.

It's a typical lunch hour at William Knight Elementary School in Canby.

Students chat excitedly as they eat pizza and pulled pork. But there's one notable difference from other public schools in Oregon: There are no milk cartons on their lunch trays.

Instead, each student drinks from a small plastic tumbler, which holds the white or chocolate milk they get from a new milk dispenser in the cafeteria.

"It's fun," some students told Sustainable Life during a recent visit. "It's easier," one said. "You don't have to grab a carton and open it," said another. "Sometimes you open it wrong."

Knight — a diverse school where about half the 400 students eat school lunch every day — is one of two Canby schools piloting the use of milk dispensers. The other is Carus Elementary, seven miles away.

With the initiative's launch in September, Canby became Oregon's first public school district to use milk dispensers in place of milk cartons — cited as a best practice by school waste-reduction coordinators in the metro area.

Conservation-minded parents at a handful of schools in Portland and surrounding suburbs have organized elaborate efforts to recycle milk cartons in their cafeterias, but the cartons' endpoint is not guaranteed, especially now that there's an uncertain Chinese market for recycled materials.

Hurdles overcome

At Knight and Carus elementaries, the milk-dispenser launch has been smooth, says Galina Dobson, nutrition services director for Canby's nine schools. "All of the issues took care of themselves," she says, such as concerns about spilling and added kitchen labor from cup-washing.

The spills are minimal, says Alex Perez, Knight's custodian, and the added kitchen labor is absorbed throughout the shift.

"I really want to have them at all of our schools," Dobson says. "The kids are so excited about it. They like to see the innovation in our cafeterias."

Canby cafeterias already follow green practices such as using durable silverware, trays and condiment dispensers instead of disposables. They also don't offer straws, a standard item at other school cafeterias to use with milk cartons.

The milk-dispenser opportunity came up last year, when Dobson responded to an offer of financial and technical support from the Clackamas County Resource Conservation and Solid Waste Program.

It was spearheaded by Laurel Bates, the county's school waste-reduction education coordinator, who'd been inspired by the effort in Olympia, Washington-area schools. Those schools and a few Portland-area private schools have used the dispensers for years, with well-documented success.

Bates collected those best practices and decided to offer the same opportunity to all 11 school districts in Clackamas County.

Dobson was the only one to respond, but Bates hopes that others now will jump on board.

It costs about $4,100 for each school to purchase the three-spigot dispenser, carts, tumblers, dishwasher racks and roll carts. Students dump their unfinished milk and stack their dirty cup upside-down in the rack; a custodian then rolls the stack of racks to the kitchen to load directly into the dishwasher.

Other findings from Knight and Carus:

• With no milk cartons, cafeteria trash now only has to be dumped once a day, instead of two or three times.

• There's less milk waste.

• There's an 80 percent increase in a la carte milk sales.

• Students are eating more food, since milk refills are allowed only after students finish their tray of food.

Clackamas County is working with Dobson to create a video showing the dispensers' success, which they plan to release in February.

Why not others?

Portland Public Schools and other metro-area districts have expressed interest in the milk dispenser concept, but questions about various hurdles have held them back.

One is the worry that if students serve their own milk, as in Canby, the district can't guarantee that students are being served a full eight ounces of milk.

As a result, they fear, the federal government would not reimburse the school district for the school lunch program.

Through Dobson's interpretation of that program, however, her students already meet the federal nutrition requirements with the servings of meat, grain and fruits or vegetables from the salad bar, and milk is a bonus. She's had no problems with federal reimbursement.

There also have been questions about implementation, cost and renegotiating milk contracts.

Now, with Canby's example, those hurdles appear to be surmountable.

@jenmomanderson

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