Since its introduction in the Oakland, Calif., school system in 2009, Green Gloves, a unique composting program has grown steadily to include nearly half of the district’s 98 schools. But what started as a program to teach kids also has proved to be an education for parents, teachers, custodians and nutrition staff.

Oakland students collect compostables for the Green Gloves programNancy Deming has been instrumental in that success, as Green Gloves/Sustainability Initiatives program manager for the Oakland Unified School District. But she started as a parent with a daughter in elementary school and a desire to bring more sustainability to the district. In the early days, she didn’t like what she saw.

“I was beside myself,” she says. ”If you’re out on the playground or in the cafeteria you didn’t have a choice there. It was one single gray trashcan. I was frustrated for the school not to be able to teach these kids these important lessons and for the schools themselves not to be able to separate out their waste appropriately and save all those resources.”

The school district established a mixed recycling program that proved successful. About three or four years ago the district took on composting as well with about 20 schools starting programs. Houston-based Waste Management Inc. worked with the schools, but efforts were limited because each school was working independently without any district-wide infrastructure.

A brainstorming meeting including Waste Management, the Alameda County Waste Management Authority and the district custodians director determined that the program would be more successful if it got the custodians more involved. That led to a symposium for custodians and the Green Gloves program to recognize exceptional effort in that area.

At the same time, Deming says, “I realized a lot of the issues were coming out of the kitchen.” The district’s nutrition services director committed to working on those issues.

There now are 43 schools separating out their cafeteria food scraps at lunchtime. The composting programs are well established in the kindergarten through grade five schools, and taking root at a few middle schools and two high schools.

“We want to get them at an early age and get those habits formed early,” says Deming.