K-12 schools are some of the most important institutions in a community, and also present a real opportunity for impactful sustainability initiatives. As a leader in providing sustainability support for K-12 schools, Seven Generations Ahead (SGA) has had a front seat to this growing trend. Around the greater Chicago area, and indeed the country, school districts are recognizing that students and parents are demanding greater environmental responsibility and awareness from them, and that teachers, administrators, and school boards are eager to support these initiatives. Additionally, sustainability programs and policies are not only good for the environment, but can also save schools money. 

SGA has a long track record of helping schools achieve their sustainability goals. For example, SGA worked with a variety of stakeholders to help guide and provide feedback on district wide sustainability policies for Oak Park River Forest High School District 200 and Oak Park Elementary School District 97. The success of these sustainability policies directly influenced and provided a roadmap for the recently adopted sustainability policy in Evanston Township High School District 202. Through the Cross Community Climate Collaborative (C4), SGA is able to effectively share its expertise with school districts across multiple communities and provide a forum for K-12 schools to share best practices. 

SGA supports sustainability in the education sector in several distinct areas: 

Waste Reduction, Food Recovery, and Composting

SGA’s Zero Waste Schools (ZWS) program empowers Chicago area schools to drastically reduce waste, fighting both the climate crisis and food insecurity, by shifting operations and minds towards generating zero waste through source reduction, recycling, composting, and food recovery. ZWS has worked with countless schools over the years to help achieve waste reduction goals, providing in-depth support to schools around Chicagoland, and online resources that have been accessed by schools around the country and the world.

Waste reduction goals are a cornerstone of sustainability in the K-12 education sector, as waste is an enormous problem in schools. An average student in the U.S. throws away an estimated 67 pounds of waste at lunch on an annual basis, and schools waste a total of 530,000 tons of food every year. ZWS can help schools divert 80-90% of their cafeteria waste from landfills. For example, at Sandoval Elementary School in the Chicago Public School district, ZWS helped reduce lunchroom trash from 25 bags per day to just two. The ZWS team has the expertise to help schools identify the right strategies to achieve the most impact from their zero waste efforts. 

Local, Sustainable Food in School Cafeterias

Illinois Farm to School Network (IFSN), a program of SGA, has reached thousands of schools across the state, providing education and support to bring local, sustainable foods into school cafeterias. IFSN provides resources, toolkits, and consulting and training for a variety of stakeholders seeking to incorporate local, sustainable food into school meals. IFSN also provides resources for incorporating healthy eating education and school gardens into school curriculum and educational activities. From programs like the Great Apple Crunch to Harvest of the Month to farmer and school local food procurement trainings, IFSN has the resources to make local, sustainable food more accessible for schools. SGA also serves as the Illinois state lead on the Lake Michigan School Food System Innovation Hub, which supports innovations in the local food system that both the harvests and cultural diversity of the Lake Michigan region. 

Lincoln Elementary School District 27 shows just how successful farm to school programs can be. They’re preparing local food for about 300 students, and sourcing everything from ground beef to onions and corn on the cob from four local farms. One challenge for D27 and other schools can be building relationships with farmers and overcoming challenges with seasonality. This is an example of where IFSN can step in to provide support for schools looking to go local and sustainable in the kitchen. 

Youth Climate Advocacy and Mentorship

It’s Our Future (IOF), SGA’s youth climate advocacy program, engages students in schools across Chicago and its suburbs, providing a platform for activism and cross-pollination of ideas that have already led to sustainability wins across multiple schools.

The cornerstone of the IOF program is the annual trip to the Conference of Parties (COP), the UN’s global climate conference. A small group of IOF students, typically junior or seniors, are selected to travel to the conference as delegates with SGA. They document their experiences through written blog posts on the SGA website, social media, and through livestreams and speaking engagements that are co-hosted by local and national environmental organizations. Students have been invited to speak on panels at the UN conferences, and have been interviewed extensively in media outlets such as Chicago’s local NPR station and the Chicago Tribune. 

As SGA facilitates the collaboration of student advocacy across schools, it also helps facilitate the cross-pollination of sustainability ideas and best practices. Because of connections forged through IOF between Oak Park River Forest High School students and Evanston Township High School students, the OPRF sustainability policy, on which SGA was a consultant, served as a blueprint for the recently-passed Green New Deal for ETHS

Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency

SGA provides guidance and support to large institutions interested in energy efficiency and renewable energy upgrades. More and more schools across Illinois are realizing both the environmental and financial benefits of renewables like solar or geothermal, and simple energy efficiency updates, can have an enormous positive impact on schools and their communities. 

When Oak Park River Forest High School District 200, which is part of the Cross Community Climate Collaborative (C4), adopted its sustainability policy, clean energy was an important component of its overall greenhouse gas reduction plan. SGA organized a forum of technical experts for D200 to help make the decision easier. This roundtable of 22 experts discussed electrification and the pros and cons of solar versus geothermal. Ultimately, D200 chose to pursue geothermal, at which point SGA connected them to a technical expert to help them devise a plan. As of January 2024, the geothermal project has been formally approved by the D200 Board of Education and will be moving forward. SGA is currently in the process of providing this type of support to several other schools in C4 communities in west suburban Chicago.

Cross Community Climate Collaborative (C4)

The Cross Community Climate Collaborative is a program launched and led by the mayors of Broadview, Oak Park, and River Forest, with SGA and the Urban Efficiency Group serving as key partners. This award-winning initiative currently supports 14 communities across west suburban Cook County. C4 is instrumental in scaling local climate solutions for the greatest impact, while also prioritizing equity and environmental justice in under resourced communities.

The education sector is a core focus of C4’s work. The C4 K-12 sector meetings are an important way for schools within the C4 communities to learn from experts together and share processes, experiences, and best practices. Through C4, SGA helps schools in the region achieve sustainability goals and contribute to measurable community-wide greenhouse gas emissions reductions. SGA recently helped launch the first zero waste program in a C4 school, and is already working on scaling this program to other schools in the district.

Sustainable schools are essential to a greener and healthier community. SGA has the resources and expertise to help schools become sustainability leaders in their communities.

To learn more about how SGA can support your school, visit our website.