As part of a local environmental organization’s initiative to increase packaging recycling in school lunchrooms, I’ve been taking a turn going in to our school district primary school once a month and helping the kids recycle their lunch materials. These are first and second graders, so they are sweet and fun but need a good deal of assistance. In case you’re wondering about the details, there are about 200 kids eating at once, and every table gets a bin to toss their recyclables in, and in one cafeteria a student from that table brings their bin up to the sink and recycles everything with my help. In the other cafeteria, I go and collect the bins after lunch and process them myself. We recycle rinsed milk cartons, plastic cups and lids which fruits and veggies come in, plastic “silverware,” milk/juice boxes and pouches, water bottles, and chip bags. Unfortunately they still use Styrofoam trays which we can’t recycle. It is painful to watch the trash fill up with those, used for 15 minutes and lasting 400 years. Of course it would be great if the district used reusable items, but they got rid of their dishwashing (and cooking) abilities when they shrank the kitchens to make room for more students 10-15 years ago or so. So we are doing the best we can. About half the kids bring their lunches and don’t generate much trash.
I didn’t anticipate when I signed up for this just how much milk I’d be handling. Each needs to be opened up and given a quick rinse, but frequently the milk needs to be dumped first. I pour a lot of milk down the drain in my two hours. In addition to coming home smelling like it, it makes me very sad to think what the cow went through to provide what I’m dumping. She desperately wanted to give it to her calf, who wanted desperately to have it, but the USDA school lunch program forces it on children who don’t need it, want it, or drink it.
Well, most drink some of it. From memory, I estimate that about 40% of the kids get milk, 90% of the milk chosen is chocolate (even when the kids don’t open it), 30% of the cartons are completely consumed, another 40% are partly consumed, 25% opened but pretty full, and 5% are unopened.
This last time I went in, the leader told us we had the option of saving the unopened milks either for our families or the food pantry. And so here is my dilemma. Do I save milk, which I don’t think is particularly healthy, especially the 90% that is chocolate (22 grams of sugar, almost two tablespoons, in one cup of milk), to provide to hungry families, or open this junk the cows suffered for and pour it down the drain? Is this sugar-milk less wasted if it is processed through a human gut than directly down the drain? Am I a vegan promoting milk by providing it to the poor? Is it arrogant of me to presume to choose for them, or is it caring to not dump USDA surplus sugar-milk on them? What if it was candy instead? Is it my right as a volunteer to decide according to my own deepest value, compassion? If I don’t pass on this milk, will someone purchase or donate replacement milk, at the cost of further animal suffering, or will an alternative be more or less healthy, compassionate, and wasteful to the environment?
Having to make a quick decision, I thought that if I was this conflicted, either choice was probably acceptable – the choices that would best serve one and all had already been bypassed by others, and it was not my fault that I was not left with good options. I decided to collect the milk in my cooler and let people who visit the pantry decide. I delivered about a gallon and a half. I tried to remember the lesson of Torn and deliver it cheerfully.
What do you think I should do next month?
Footnote: Food Pantries Request Healthy Food Donations has milk in the yes column and sugary beverages in the no column.