Sixth-graders concerned about lunch trays

Mahomet-Seymour Junior High School sixth-graders Amelie Dall’erba, left, and Eva Meerdink, right, both 11, show a slide from their work to persuade school leaders to consider a change in the type of lunch trays used throughout much of the district.

MAHOMET — Sixth-graders Amelie Dall’erba and Eva Meerdink have identified what they see as an issue to be addressed in Mahomet-Seymour schools and worked to suggest solutions at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High School.

So far, they’ve researched the topic, created a slideshow and presented it to their principal, Nathan Mills — all on their own time. They hope to take their efforts further.

And it all came up over lunch in the cafeteria, growing from a conversation between the bright-eyed 11-year-olds: They’re concerned that the school serves lunch on one-time-use Styrofoam trays and the effect this has on the environment.

“We were sitting at lunch one day and we’d always noticed the trays, which I don’t think many other sixth-graders do,” Amelie said. “This is really bad for the environment. Is there any way that we can change this?

“And so, from there, the idea just grew,” she said.

Eva chimed in, “We always talk at lunch because we can’t really talk in classes.”

The girls began to talk to people, conduct research and get information about how many trays are used, why the Styrofoam is chosen over other tray options and the extent of the effects of the product that could be replaced with more biodegradable or reusable trays.

“It turned into a slideshow,” Amelie said, and the girls next took their effort to the administrative level at the school.

“We presented it to (Mills) and all that stuff,” Eva said, admitting that doing so did make the pair a bit anxious. “It wasn’t like nerve-wracking like we were shaking; it was just like, ‘Oh gosh, this is the principal.’”

Amelie added, “We’re confident in our work.”

The 20-slide show is titled, “A Small Change.” It goes through statistics about the harm Styrofoam can do to the Earth’s environment. The school uses about 74,000 of the trays per year, the girls stated in their slideshow, and the Styrofoam is not easily biodegradable. They note how much water is used to make the trays, for example, and other statistics about the product.

The girls offer details about other tray options: non-renewable or biodegradable, and reusable. They address the costs of each tray type, and encourage emphasis on thinking of staying “green” to keep the Earth protected. They cite sources for their information, too.

Their theme became, “A small change can make a big difference.”

Amelie and Eva chose a theme and used Google Slides to create their presentation. They acknowledge and thank their parents for their help. They admit they put a lot of work into the project already, but they consider it more fun than a chore.

“We’re really passionate about it,” Amelie said.

Eva added, “You were never, like, forcing yourself to do it.”

“It’s fun to find a problem and the solution,” Amelie said.

The girls have been friends for some time. They were in the same class all day in fifth-grade, offering them time to get acquainted. They have worked on this project in earnest during the current school year.

“About three months ago we started digging in,” Eva said. “We were like, ‘Wow. We want to change this.

“’This is important to us,’” she added.

Amelie is the daughter of Sandy Dall’erba and Francina Dominguez of Champaign; the family lives just at the border of the Mahomet-Seymour school district. Eva is the daughter of Cammie and John Meerdink of Mahomet.

“We are very proud of them and it’s just a really cool thing to see them be passionate about something that they believe in,” Cammie Meerdink said. “They did a lot of research so they could present it and not just talk about it and not do anything concrete.

“They’re very self-motivated,” she added. “They’ve been pretty impressive.”

Both Amelie and Eva are hoping that their efforts will result in action. The pair hope to spread the word and get others to join the movement. They want the use of Styrofoam trays in their school to be discontinued.

“If it actually happens, then it was well worth it,” Amelie said. “We are very, very hopeful.”

Eva added, “We really want to (prompt change).”

They don’t want their youth to stand in their way, either.

“I think the thing that discourages us the most (is) if our age” is a roadblock, Amelie said, adding the pair don’t want adults to be “thinking of us as little girls other than people who actually want to make a change.”

According to Trent Nuxoll, chief school business official for the Mahomet-Seymour school district, Arbor Food Management handles food management for the Mahomet-Seymour school district. The company outbid Aramark LLC for the work starting with the current school year. Aramark had provided food service management for the district for some time before the change this year.

Both Aramark and Arbor Food Management use Styrofoam trays for meals. Every five years, during the bidding process, the school district determines what types of trays will be used, Nuxoll said.

Plastic reusable trays are used at Middletown Prairie Elementary School for kindergarten through second-grade students as they might have difficulty handling Styrofoam trays, according to Nuxoll. He said using environmentally friendly trays versus Styrofoam has been discussed.

Nuxoll said: “According to Arbor Management, the Styrofoam trays are approximately $0.04 per tray while the environmental-friendly trays are $0.14 per tray. In 2018-2019 school year, we served 172,277 meals for breakfast and lunch at Lincoln Trail, MSJH, and MSHS. It would have cost $17,228 more to use environment-friendly trays in ’18-19.”