Going green: Immanuel students make cafeteria changes


Sam Dyer’s lunch routine always included one particular item each day.

The Immanuel Lutheran School fourth grader always used a straw to drink from a carton of milk.

But after Dyer and his classmates took a writing assignment about plastic’s effect on the environment to heart, there’s no need for one anymore.

“It’s actually kind of fun slurping it (milk) down without a straw,” he said. “I feel we’ve made a difference.”

A difference indeed.

In January, fourth graders were given a persuasive writing assignment in language arts. It’s something that’s part of the curriculum for the course, and each year, students are given a different topic.

This year’s topic was the effects of plastic in the environment, and teachers Tammi Keilman and Julie Tracey asked students to consider both sides of limiting plastic or using it.

“We read through the article and weighed the pros and cons of each side,” Keilman said. “We had them decide how they felt but then had to list why.”

Students had to list facts on each side of the issue and evaluate which stance they would take.

At first, students weren’t too keen on the idea of giving up their straws during lunch, but as they read into the impact on wildlife and the environment, many changed their opinion.

“As we talked about it, we told them to think about our own cafeteria and look at the floor and trash cans,” Keilman said.

The wheels began turning when students thought about the times when they would drop a straw and get another one or when they thought about how several would fall out as they grabbed one.

“It was interesting to see,” she said.

Students then began asking Keilman and Tracey whether they would give the 48 letters to cafeteria manager Michael Hancock.

The two did, and Hancock read each of them and conducted his own research, and as it turns out, he agreed with them.

Hancock thought about how many students pointed out that straws thrown in the trash could blow out and a bird could mistake it for food, potentially injuring itself.

“You can see where they would easily happen,” he said.

The school used to set straws by the trays, napkins and silverware, but now, straws must be requested.

“I want them to know they can voice their opinion in here and make changes as long as they’re reasonable,” Hancock said. “I think the students had very valid points.”

Not every student was for limiting straws, as many outlined health concerns, but Hancock said those students understood.

Hancock balanced out both arguments and decided to only give straws upon request. Students with health conditions or dental work can have straws. Or a student who prefers a straw can simply ask and staff will give them one.

Last week, not a single student requested a straw.

“I think it’s better for the environment,” Hankcock’s daughter, Blayklee, said.

She’s a fourth grader at the school.

“Animals can be hurt or killed by the straws,” she said.

Blayklee didn’t let her dad in on the students’ plans to approach him.

“I knew about the assignment, but she kept that part a secret,” he said.

When Blayklee read the article provided by her teachers, she felt sad because she loves animals.

Dyer agreed.

“I’m pretty sure if you throw it away in an open trash can outside, the wind could blow it away, and eventually, something is going to pick it up,” he said.

If it’s blown into the grass, a bird may pick it up for its nest or think it’s a source of food, Dyer said. He didn’t want to think about what would happen if a tiny baby bird would begin to think plastic was food.

Dyer said with plastic going into a gutter or drain, it could end up in an ocean or river.

“A fish could think it’s food, too, and that’s a problem,” he said.

It was never the teachers’ intentions to actually change the school’s policy, Keilman said. She and Tracey just wanted to see the assignment get completed.

The push came about on its own.

“I think a lot of times, they feel like they don’t have a voice, but they do,” Keilman said. “Even this little writing assignment can make all the difference.”

Hancock said that’s why he took their request seriously.

He also has plans to start a student advisory council to get feedback on different products the cafeteria uses and find what the school prefers.

The students’ effort may not even stop at straws. Their proposal has Hancock considering how the cafeteria can reduce its plastic use in other ways.

“We get a lot of single-serving fruit cups, and now, we may look at alternatives for that,” he said. “We may set out recycling bins just for that.”

Hancock said many times, the straws would end up in the wrong place, like the milk carton recycling tote or the garbage disposal.

Hancock said he has noticed the change since it has been implemented, and people should not underestimate the impact a young person can have.

“There are no straws in the trash, and very few kids have asked for them,” he said. “I think this makes a difference just in the cafeteria. If it helps in here, just think about what it does for the environment.”

As for those letters from fourth graders? Hancock plans to hang onto them as a keepsake and reminder of the impact students can have.

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