Kerry Poage

Kerry Poage, a teacher at Grant Elementary, is the winner of the Progress in Sustainability award.

If you ask Kerry Poage about how Grant Elementary School was able to reduce landfill waste by almost 60%, she would tell you the credit is all due to her fifth-grade students.

While that may be true, Poage most certainly had a hand in fostering an environment where her students were able to learn how food waste directly impacts their community, and she gave her students countless opportunities to advocate for change.

For seven months, Poage and her students worked on a food waste initiative at their school after a waste audit revealed the school of around 300 students was producing 200 pounds of waste in one day. The kids were immediately inspired to take action, and Poage encouraged it. It started with a project on recycling, and it grew to her students implementing a new waste bin system in their cafeteria. Poage’s students also taught their fellow classmates about how to compost by making videos, flyers and announcements. Poage’s passion for sustainability and her creative teaching style was the driving force behind this project.

Where did the idea to do a sustainable project with your class come from?

So my class last year started with a question from a book we were reading, and it was, what does it take to create change? My students were really interested in what that meant and how it was affecting different areas of our classroom. So I suggested we do sort of a school project to see if we could create change within Grant Elementary.

How did you end up trying to reduce food waste?

So it started with recycling. And they were noticing that a lot of the teachers’ recycling bins had other things besides just paper in them. They thought, it’s not just recycling, we’re noticing all this waste in the cafeteria. They helped collect every single piece of trash or waste from an entire day at Grant. So we sorted it into compostables and recycling and food. And it ended up being that we had over 200 pounds of waste in one day. Grant is a really small school, so we did the math. It ended up being that if every school was the size of Grant, we would waste over a million pounds of food every year. So that freaked them out. So I said what should we do about it? What do we need to do? They just launched into this whole kind of activism.

What did that activism look like?

They wanted to create a “green team.” They were out on Broadway with giant signs telling other people that we were getting all this encouragement from the city and the school district. I think they were realizing we’re doing something small, but it is reaching other people within the city.

Why do you think sustainability is important to practice?

It’s just something that we do. I think a lot of people are unaware of how much trash they are producing in a day or in a week. And [my students] were just really moved by making a difference in Grant Elementary. It started small and they were really motivated to take it to the middle schools and share this information.

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