Foodservice Efficiency in K-12 Schools, Disposables vs Reusables

March 06, 2018 by Hobart

Dishwashing

Foodservice operations in K-12 schools have evolved significantly over the last several years due to changing nutrition requirements, staffing cuts, environmental concerns, and more. One issue that continues to be debated by cafeteria managers and others is whether to use reusable or disposable ware.

It’s fair to say most schools already offer a combination of reusable and disposable items, with trays and prep ware making up the majority of the reusables. The question is, which option should be primarily used and why?

There’s no easy answer, as K-12 foodservice operations vary widely in regard to volume, equipment and budgets. However, the School Nutrition Association published a study that analyzed sample of elementary, middle school and high school cafeterias to help nutrition directors get to the bottom of this conundrum. The result? Washing reusable trays was more cost effective than buying and throwing out disposable serving ware.

But what if a school district balks at the idea of investing in a commercial dishwasher? It’s important to note that while the upfront costs of a dishmachine or prep washer may seem significant, the operation will likely save money in the long run.

Current Practices

Still, disposable ware seems convenient because it doesn’t have to be washed. But, continually buying and throwing away paper, cardboard, or plastic items may not be cost effective over time. In addition, discarding large amounts of materials leads to concern about environmental impacts.

Winnie Brewer is a Food and Nutrition Services Director at a school district in Ohio and she discovered both a financial and environmental benefit to making the switch to using more plastic trays for school lunches. “We were able to downsize the cubic footage of our trash containers when we switched from disposable lunch trays to reusable lunch trays,” said Brewer. “And, we were able to afford an additional three-hour person in each building.  I would much rather invest in human capital than contribute to the landfills!”

When considering both cost and environmental issues, it makes sense for school cafeterias to use commercial dishwashers, especially since today’s models are more energy efficient than they’ve ever been.

In fact, the SNA study found that using a newer model commercial dishwasher can reduce rinse water usage and energy consumption by nearly 50 percent over an older model machine. And, that can add up to a $1,300 savings per 100,000 meals served.

Tim Christianson is a Partner at HRI, Inc., a company that provides Foodservice Equipment Manufacturer Reps to the foodservice industry. He works with several K-12 school cafeterias to find workable commercial dishwasher solutions. And, he’s noticed several ways in which schools are dealing with disposables versus reusables.

“Not many schools do just disposables,” explained Christianson. “Most schools I work with in Indiana have commercial dishwashers.”

Christianson went on to explain that the reusable ware being washed varies based on whether the school is elementary, junior high, or high school.

“For example, what I’m seeing more in high schools is that they’re getting away from compartmentalized trays,” he said. “They’re going more towards presenting foods in containers, like a cardboard bowl. And the containers are carried on a flat tray. All schools doing the disposable containers are still using a flat plastic tray that needs to be washed.”

So, the strategy of using a mix of disposable ware and reusable items means that plastic trays and the prep ware needed to provide required fruits and vegetables still need to be washed. Should foodservice operations turn to newer-model replacement dishwashers or try to manage the cleaning and sanitizing process with the labor-intensive three-sink process?

This is the million-dollar question and one that probably should be answered by considering total cost of ownership related to the machine, in the form of:

  • Machine Cost
  • Labor
  • Water/Energy Efficiency

Return on Investment

How long will it take for you to recoup the investment you’ve made in your commercial dishmachine? Not as long as you might think. Many technological advances (energy recovery, soil removal and rinse spray optimization) have hit the market throughout the past decade, driven by the green - sustainability movement, with a key emphasis on water and energy conservation. These innovations have drastically reduced the environmental footprint of automated dishwashers, which in turn has significantly reduced the financial burden previously experienced by end users.

When compared to aging equipment, a new machine purchase typically pays for its self within 18-24 months. And, the savings aren’t only limited to water and energy, but can also materialize in chemical expenses as well. Ask your dishwasher manufacturer’s rep about performing a total cost of ownership study before your machine purchase, and you might be pleasantly surprised at the outcome.

Labor Considerations

According to a USDA FY2016 preliminary study, nearly 100,000 schools/institutions serve school lunches to 30.4 million students each day, with 5 billion lunches are served annually. If we know there’s likely a mix of disposable and reusable ware in these cafeterias, what is the driving force behind deciding to lean more heavily toward one or the other?

“The labor is the biggest piece of the puzzle,” stated Christianson. “Most schools don’t have full-time dishwashers. People float from prep to wash and the speed at which everything gets done is very important.”

Efficiency

One solution that fits in nicely with a typical K-12 foodservice operation is an automatic prep washer. For instance, the Advansys™ line of Hobart PW Prep washers are ENERGY STAR® Certified and offer the exclusive Energy Recovery system on the PW10eR and PW20eR models.

What makes Energy Recovery technology so desirable? First, the Energy Recovery system runs on a kitchen’s cold water line, resulting in an approximate $1,500 savings in energy costs. Secondly, a vent hood is not required, and this is good news considering additional duct work is sometimes necessary in addition to the purchase of a vent hood.

Because a K-12 foodservice operation is likely working under a tight budget, an energy-efficient, automatic prep washer can be a welcome addition to a kitchen that needs to clean and sanitize several loads of trays and prep ware. In addition, a newer-model automatic prep washer can easily be operated using the popular labor practice of a cross-functional team.

Foodservice Perception

Need something else to consider when working through the best way to manage a school cafeteria’s reusable/disposable ware mix? Think presentation. In other words, how the cafeteria meals are presented to students makes a difference to the sustainability of the operation. Kids today are often aware of environmental impacts surrounding certain throw-away materials like Styrofoam and may avoid purchasing items with these types of containers.

In fact, Christianson shared a story about an elementary school cafeteria he worked with that had a temporarily disabled automatic dishwasher. The school changed over to Styrofoam food containers instead of reusable trays and the students became concerned about the amount of trash being thrown away. The kids went so far as to perform a study of how many pieces of Styrofoam from their lunches were ending up in local landfills. The school eventually repaired their dishwasher and went back to serving meals on reusable trays.

Remember, the SNA study concluded that washing reusable trays was a more cost-effective option than using disposable serving ware. When applying this finding to a commercial dishwasher purchasing decision, consider this: The SNA study found that using a mix of disposables, reusable trays and a newer, energy efficient dishwasher model resulted in lower energy requirements than using only reusables with a less-efficient dishwasher.

Finding a Solution that Works with the Budget

The reality is there isn’t a one-size-fits-all system when it comes to reusable versus disposable ware in K-12 cafeterias. While most schools may stick to a mix, the SNA Study and other data show that investing in a commercial warewasher is the best bet when it comes to saving money over time, as well as increasing overall operation efficiency.

See the Life Cycle Environmental and Cost Analysis of Disposable and Reusable Ware in School Cafeterias Summary (SNA Study) at https://www.thegreenteam.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Warewash_Study-Summary.pdf

Learn more about the Advansys PW Prep Washer

Tags: Dishwashing

SUBSCRIBE TO THE BLOG!

Latest Posts


Even Greener Than Before - Commercial Dishwashers & ENERGY STAR 3.0

July 09, 2021 by Hobart

Effective July 27, 2021, all commercial dishwashers sold with the ENERGY STAR label will have to meet new, more stringent guidelines and testing requirements set by the ENERGY STAR program, a joint program between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. Hobart is ready with dishmachine models from across our entire product line that are certified to the new standards. 

Read More

What’s Your Time Worth? Reducing Labor in the Dishroom

April 06, 2021 by Hobart

Time is money, and no one understands that old adage more is better than an employer who pays employees by the hour. What if there was a way to reduce the amount of time dishroom operators have to spend pre-soaking and scraping dishes before loading them into the dishmachine, and instead gives them more time to do other productive tasks around the kitchen? The Automatic Soil Removal (ASR) technology on select Hobart commercial dishwashers reduces time spent prescrapping, leading to dishwashing labor savings by 20% or more.

Read More

How Clean are Your Dishes? Cleaning Tough Foods with Less Effort

March 25, 2021 by Hobart

Anyone who has spent time soaking and scrubbing dried-up, crusty foods and grease off dishes, prep ware and pots and pans knows just how tough and time consuming some foods soils are to remove. Some of the top offenders are eggs, cheese, pie filling and tomato-based sauces, and anything with a high sugar or fat content is a prime culprit in baked-on, dried-up or greasy food messes.

Thanks to these tough foods, scrapping and soaking are necessary processes in the dishroom. But with the right equipment in place the time spent on these labor-intensive tasks can be reduced, leading to increased productivity and cost savings in the kitchen.

Read More

Head of the Class Performance: Hobart Dishwasher Serving School Since 1965

March 11, 2021 by Hobart

Since 1965, Roncalli High School of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, has been preparing students for life – 5,118 graduates so far, and about 230 current students.

And since the first day of classes at Roncalli High, a Hobart C-81 conveyor-style dishwasher has been reliably washing students’ lunchware, 180 days a year, going on 56 years. Not to mention cleaning dishes to a sparkle after the school’s annual Food Fair, annual dinners, fundraising auctions, and even community events and wedding receptions.

Read More

Sanitization & Clean Kitchens: Your Dishmachine & the Coronavirus

February 23, 2021 by Hobart

In March, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic from COVID-19, the disease caused by novel Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), which caused heightened awareness among the public about many health and safety issues, including food safety in restaurants and commercial kitchens. For those in the foodservice industry, the health and safety of employees and customers is a top priority. Understanding the issues and having a clear knowledge of the facts surrounding the virus can go a long way in calming anxiety and maintaining good business practices.

Read More