Students at Oxford Elementary eat off compostable plates. While they use metal forks, other schools use compostable forks. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Minutes after the noon lunch bell rings during the school year, students across Berkeley eagerly grab wheat-straw fiber-based trays, plates and utensils at the front of the lunch line and wait for their locally-grown meals.

But the compostable, plant-based foodware that many of BUSD 9,400 students use daily comes at an exorbitant cost. And because of President Trump’s trade tariffs, the foodware might be out of reach for the district next year.

On July 6, 2018, the Trump administration placed a tariff on China assigning a 25% tax on a plethora of imports. The punitive tariffs decreased revenues to China by $50 billion but also meant that those ordering from the U.S. paid higher prices. This international trade policy is now starting to impact the ordering abilities of BUSD, limiting their access to the compostable products they depend on to fulfill their dedication to sustainability. Costs may also go up.

BUSD orders its wheat-straw fiber serving materials from World Centric, a sustainable producer of compostable products, according to Ric Keeley, head of purchasing for BUSD. The company gets most of its products from outside the U.S. As of Aug. 1, World Centric will increase its prices to combat the tariffs on their imports, according to BUSD officials.

“(World Centric) kept the prices the same through last year, but they’re saying that the prices will have to go up for next year, based on these tariffs,” said Keeley after a recent meeting with his World Centric sales representative, Bhavani Werning. “They were trying to ride it out.”

Keeley has been unable to get an estimate from World Centric for the trays that the BUSD depends on to feed its students. The prices are still in flux after a year of increased tariffs on all goods that come from China.

“Because of the tariffs, we’re not sure we can lock into a price just yet,” said Keeley.

And that uncertainty means Keeley is unsure whether the school district will be able to continue buying their products.

“There have been issues,” said Bonnie Christensen, the director of nutrition services for the district. “We have been waiting to hear what the costs will be contingent on what happens with tariffs.”

The city of Berkeley made progress in its fight against plastic last January when it passed an ordinance to phase out single-use plastic foodware in all restaurants. BUSD has applied this strategy to its 16 schools. However, the promises made through this ordinance are being challenged as the price of compostable items increases.

The alternative for Keeley and the BUSD is to order compostable products from a manufacturer that has factories within the United States and has lower prices.

But the quality of the products made in the U.S. is not as high as those made in Asia, said Werning, a World Centric sales representatives for Northern California.

“We’ve tried working with factories here in the U.S. but the quality is very different and it was hard for us to sell that product that was just not manufactured in the same quality as the product that comes from Asia,” said Werning.

Labor costs in the United States are much higher than in China. Werning argues that because labor prices are lower in China, and the process of creating high-quality compostable items is so labor intensive, the best products are those that come out of China.

World Centric began as a non-profit, and now offers non-profit organizations a 20% discount on all of their products. Even with this discount, the increase in prices set to take place on August 1, may be too high for the BUSD to be able to afford for the next academic year.

a woman with rubber gloves on smiles and holds out a paper plate of food
Andrea Chappell served up free oven-fried chicken on a compostable plate at Washington Elementary in June. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“(BUSD’s) budget is very tight and they’re mandated to use compostable products, then on top of that there’s a tariff on a lot of the compostable products,” said Werning.

“We are working on this right now,” said Gitara Spinks, the executive chef of the BUSD.  “So to confirm, yes, affordability for compostable items are always an issue. With the limited funding that we have for each student, BUSD Nutrition Services will always do our due diligence to ensure that we are getting the best product for the least amount of money.”

Ellen Beyer, a mother of a former and current BUSD student, voiced frustration over the disruption that Trump’s tariffs are causing the local school district. She feels that the district has more valuable ways to budget their time.

“I think that Berkeley has been at the vanguard of many things and I think nutritional services for public school children is one of them,” said Beyer. “I think they’ve been very mindful and it’s a reflection of the values of the community. This tariff will undermine that.”

Beyer argues that these tariffs have little to offer the people of the United States. They do not protect the working people who live in this country, nor were they a necessary action taken by the President.

“I think (Trump) is not helping our school district and the school district is trying to help our kids. From the top down, for every decision he has made, I have not seen them benefit our children.”