In the fifth grade at Hatch School on Ridgeland Avenue in Oak Park, Monika Knickrehm, now 13, and in turn, her younger sister, Claudia Knickrehm, now10, say they were lunchtime Seven Generations Ahead (SGA) “zero waste ambassadors.” So at lunchtime they would educate classmates about the ins and outs of in-school recycling, composting, or landfill trashing food scraps, plastics and paper products.

What the Knickrehm girls did, and now kids at nine District 97 schools are doing, is a customized version of a program that is called Zero Waste Schools, a program that was created by a West Coast group called BioCycle.

In 2007, SGA, a nonprofit specializing in sustainable community development, launched Zero Waste Schools as a two-year pilot program at Holmes School on Chicago Avenue. Simultaneously, SGA had secured grant funding to seed a few District 97 school garden projects, including the organic fruit orchard and veggie garden now known as the Hatch Patch

Since then, Hatch Patch has become a model for school gardens across the area, says Gary Cuneen, executive director SGA, which he founded in 2001.

“We had written a successful grant proposal which enabled our initial work at Hatch, Longfellow and a couple of other schools in Chicago, and that was the school garden projects,” says Cuneen. “Then, in 2009, after the successful pilot at Holmes, we supported Hatch, and a handful of other schools [in their process] to write grants to get funding from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunities, through its Zero Waste grant program, and actually raised over $100,000 for the district.”

Two years later, when Hatch’s zero waste composting and recycling initiative was on deck, SGA inspired volunteers to customize it.

Soon, they built a traditional three-bin, composter, complemented by commercial composting, thanks in part to the volunteerism of Cathi Knickrehm, the mother of Monika and Claudia. At a PTO meeting, Cathi Knickrehm raised her hand, and as a volunteer has taken a lead role in the grant writing process as the project developed, and continues to flourish now.

“You know, that is one of the things we like to do, is build teams within administrations, whether it is a school or another institution that is actually going to get the hands on work done,” Cuneen says. “For Zero Waste, we did convening, training, the waste audits, and really provided the guidance, and then expanded it to the other District 97 schools that were interested,” he says. “So, it really requires volunteers like Cathi Knickrehm, who are motivated, skilled, intelligent and willing to get their hands dirty and do the work on the ground, as Cathi did.”

Back at Hatch, though, it’s fall harvest time outside in the school’s organic garden, and in as the zero waste cafeteria where the zero waste effort lives on.

“When we were going through the Zero Waste grant process, I used to laugh about how much of the day I spent thinking about garbage,” says Knickrehm. “SGA made it possible to do this by bringing us knowledge and wrap-around support, and because of them, we have gotten to know parents in other schools and nonprofit boards. They have helped us grow in so many ways.”

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....

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