While most kids on Realms Middle Schools’ wooded campus spent their recess chatting or playing outside, three were in the school kitchen, washing dishes. The kids fought for those spots.

A few minutes earlier, another middle schooler was turned away from washing dishes after Amy Anderson, Realms’ dean of students, reminded her that she had washed dishes several times that week, and it was time for other students to have a turn.

The young helpers are on the front lines of an effort to teach environmental sustainability at Bend-La Pine Schools. Realms, along with two other schools in the district, avoids using disposable cups, plates and dishes.

But someone has to wash those reusable plates, so Realms created a staff of student volunteers called Kitchen Ninjas.

Kim Crosby, an educational assistant who helps with the Kitchen Ninjas, was shocked at how excited middle schoolers were about scrubbing plates and bowls.

“I can’t imagine most adults wanting to wash dishes, which is why most adults have dishwashers,” she said, laughing.

Crosby said the program helps students develop a personal stake in protecting the environment.

“We’re making it open to the kids to own their school and own this process, as opposed to just the magic happening behind-the-scenes,” she said. “Any time you can put responsibility in the hands of kids, it’s going to give them a sense of ownership and pride.”

Kitchen Ninjas

Realms has used reusable dishes since it moved into its current north Bend campus in 2010, as part of the school’s green focus.

To compliment that, food waste is weighed after lunch, and the total is written on a whiteboard in the lunchroom to show students how much food they don’t eat. Food waste is sent to Knott Landfill, Anderson said.

Realms saves about 8,000 paper and plastic cups, plates, utensils and boats from landfills each year, according to Anderson.

The Kitchen Ninjas program didn’t begin until 2011, when then-kitchen worker Leah Williamson decided to get students involved in the process of cleaning the dishes and serving food.

Now, two to three students wash dishes during recess, and a couple others help serve food at lunch.

The experience can help kids create friendships during their awkward middle school years, Anderson said.

“Going out to recess where there’s 150 kids can be a little daunting for some kids to find those connections,” she said. “By being on a work crew, you’re automatically getting those connections in a more intimate space.”

Seventh grader Sophia Camancho, 12, said she tries to sign up for Kitchen Ninjas as many days as she can.

“I really like Katy (Baker), our lunch lady,” she said. “I like chatting with her and chatting with the other people who are the ninjas.”

Eighth grader Ashley Braden, 13, said she appreciates the program’s lack of waste.

“I feel like it’s better for the environment, because sea turtles and other (animals) are getting hurt by plastic and paper,” she said.

Lunchroom sustainability

Realms is one of three schools in Bend-La Pine to avoid disposable dishes in the lunchroom, the others being William E. Miller Elementary and Westside Village Magnet at Kingston School. But in the past year, 12 other elementary schools in the district — that’s more than half — have switched from plastic utensils to permanent silverware.

Garra Schulter, Bend-La Pine Schools’ nutrition services supervisor, said her team has slowly rolled out silverware in elementary schools, partly because of the difficulty of quickly implementing a program in a large school district of nearly 19,000 students.

Elementary schools are being prioritized over middle and high schools, as elementary students are a “captive audience” in their lunchrooms, Schulter said. Older students can eat lunch nearly anywhere they want in their buildings, making it difficult to get students to put used silverware into the same bin instead of throwing it away or taking it with them.

“If you’re losing silverware all the time, then you’re not saving anything at that point,” Schulter said.

When a school introduces silverware, students practice for a week by putting plastic utensils in the same soaking tub they’ll eventually put silverware, Schulter said.

Once the silverware is brought in, students scrape and stack the disposable paper boats, placing them in a tub next to the silverware tub. Schulter said creating an assembly line will get students in the habit of putting their used silverware in the correct bin, rather than throwing everything into the trash.

“If they have a process that they go through, then it’s less likely they’ll throw it all away,” she said.

The switch has saved the school district money. Although Schulter did not have a dollar amount, she said buying new silverware costs the same as buying three weeks of plastic utensils.

Jackie Wilson, Bend-La Pine’s sustainability coordinator, said when a school serves meals with disposable utensils to 300 students each day, that’s a total of about 54,000 utensils ending up in a landfill each year. Multiply that by the 24 district schools with at least 300 students, and the number of tossed utensils skyrockets to nearly 1.3 million utensils per year.

Wilson said switching to reusable silverware would not only save money, but also help the environment in a way that students can participate in.

“It’s just a really great, easy thing that we can do, and it means this plastic won’t be sitting in a landfill forever,” she said. “It shows our students that little steps make a big difference.”

Although Schulter said she hopes every school in Bend-La Pine will switch to reusable products, she said she’d rather implement permanent dishes effectively, rather than rush the process.

“We want it to be a successful rollout,” she said. “We want to make sure we do it right, as opposed to doing it and then at the end of the year, it ends.”

Wilson said the goal is for every elementary school to have reusable silverware by the end of January 2020 and introduce reusable silverware in a middle school before the 2019-20 school year ends. By next school year, Wilson said the district hopes to eliminate plastic straws for juice boxes sold in lunchrooms. Exceptions will be made for students with disabilities that need straws, she added.

“I think our district is really trying to do some great things to decrease our impact on the planet, and I’m excited to see what’s in the future for us,” she said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7854, jhogan@bendbulletin.com