Drop by École Gron Morgan Public School early on a Wednesday morning and you’ll find the Breakfast Club in action: a rotating group of parents (and, often, their kids) volunteering to prepare a hot, nutritious breakfast for any of the school’s approximately 700 students who’d like to share in the meal.
On this particular Wednesday, Carmen Kinniburgh is the Breakfast Club’s lead volunteer. She’s planned the menu — scrambled eggs with cheese, fruit salad, and applesauce muffins made during one of the Club’s regular baking nights — and shopped for fresh ingredients the night before. Now, she’s problem-solving as little issues come up: two sixth-grade boys have gleefully cracked five dozen eggs but need a whisk to beat them; one of the moms needs a cutting board; there’s no butter for the eggs, but some oil will do the trick instead.
She’s also helping to ensure that the Breakfast Club produces as little waste as possible.
“We used to serve food and smoothies on paper plates and in plastic cups,” she explains. Using disposables, though, didn’t sit well with her. “For one thing, buying them each week really ate into our food budget — we were spending $15 or $20 a month on plates that we could have spent on food.”
Equally important, it didn’t send the right message to the kids volunteering in the program and eating the food. The school’s walls, Carmen points out, are plastered with messages about reducing litter, recycling, and the dangers of plastics — it made no sense for the Breakfast Club to toss a hundred plates and cups into landfill each week.
Still, it took a little while for Carmen, a freelance writer and editor, to speak up about taking Breakfast Club down a lower-waste path. It’s her third year as a volunteer, a role she took on when she moved from Winnipeg to Thunder Bay in 2015 and was looking for a way to meet people and get involved in her kids’ school: Molly, Luke, and Eden are now in grades 2, 4, and 7, respectively.
“You see how hard everyone already works: to coordinate volunteers, plan menus and organize baking nights, to buy the food, and then get up early — and often get their kids up early — and get to the school to make it. The staff does so much already. And so I didn’t really feel like being the person to say, ‘But what about the plastic?’”
Eventually, though, she took the plunge. “I got comfortable enough with the person running the program to ask, ‘What would you think if I donated 80 reusable cups to Breakfast Club?’ And the organizer said, ‘Yes, absolutely.’”
From there, the low-waste ethos snowballed. “Another mom immediately offered to donate reusable plates. And now another parent has brought in a bucket for food scraps so we can compost all the eggshells and banana peels and apple cores.” It’s common practice for Breakfast Club members to wash out and reuse Ziploc bags and recycle cardboard egg containers and milk cartons. Carmen takes clean, empty yogurt containers to a city program that provides meals to community members in need, which uses them to provide “takeout” meals to clients.
Carmen tries to avoid buying fruit and vegetables in clamshell packaging, which the city — much to her annoyance — does not recycle (yet). And the school is now installing a dishwasher for those reusable cups and plates, which means that she no longer needs to take them home and wash them herself each week. “That was getting a bit unsustainable,” she admits. She points out that the teachers and staff love the plates and cups, and happily use them for their students’ other food programs.
In speaking up, and finally deciding to risk being “the crazy plastic cup lady,” Carmen, 43, realized a key truth: “Everyone was thinking the same thing. Pretty much everyone felt the same way and was just waiting for someone else to bring it up. And really, I can’t remember the last time I talked to someone who didn’t want to reduce the amount of garbage we produce.”
The experience, she says, has made her think about being more vocal about other issues in her adopted city: like agitating for a better recycling program in Thunder Bay, or talking to the local country market about reducing vendors’ reliance on plastic bags and disposable take-out containers.
She encourages other parents to speak up, not just to voice complaints — “Nobody wants to be a critic” — but to offer support and solutions. “Often, everyone’s just waiting for somebody else to say something, and they’re happy when you do, and more than happy to help.”
SUSAN GOLDBERG is a writer based in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines, and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and co-editor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families.
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