PORTLAND, Maine — Huhtamaki, the manufacturer known for making Chinet plates and bowls for the restaurant chain Chipotle at its Waterville factory, has rolled out a new compostable line of plates to six of the country’s largest public school systems.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and Kevin Concannon, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary for food and nutrition services, toured the plant Monday to see the new product at the plant that employs about 550 people.
“This could be a big opportunity in the future,” Pingree said in a telephone interview after the tour Monday.
The company was one of many bidders in a contract solicited by the Urban School Food Alliance, a nonprofit organization set up by the public school districts in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Orlando and Dallas.
The contract was awarded in the spring and production on the compostable trays started about two months ago, according Wess Hudelson, a spokesman for the company. Hudelson said the contract term is three years with an option to extend the deal to five years.
“As of right now, they are all produced in Waterville,” Hudelson said. “As it grows, we might add some capacity at another plant.”
Hudelson deliveries are ramping up now as school systems prepare for students to return in the fall. The contract has helped push total employment at the company to a recent high, Hudelson said, and supports in the range of 20 to 25 positions.
The alliance represents schools serving about 2.8 million students each day across 4,536 schools and about $550 million in annual food and food supply purchasing.
Concannon, a Portland native, said he set up the tour with Pingree after hearing the winning bidder for the public school consortium’s contract also made Chinet plates.
“My ears perked up because I had lived in Waterville, and I asked, ‘Is that plant in Waterville, Maine, by any chance?’” Concannon said.
He said the sustainability initiative fits in with USDA efforts to give students more information about nutrition and how food is grown and sourced.
“There’s a lot of excitement in the school food world about this, because we not only want children to eat healthy but we want to demonstrate and reinforce sustainable practices,” Concannon said in a telephone interview Monday.
The consortium of schools had first banded together in 2013 to negotiate a collective purchasing agreement for plates to replace ones made of polystyrene, which does not break down for centuries. The schools set up the nonprofit Urban School Food Alliance to negotiate the deal collectively and to explore other purchasing opportunities, like for utensils, that would reduce waste.
NPR reported in July the compostable trays cost 4.9 cents each, compared with 4 cents each for polystyrene plates. The transition has come with some challenges, NPR reported, as not all of the cities have options immediately available for turning the compostable waste into soil or fuel.
The plates are made from recycled paper, including newsprint, that is then blended into a liquid solution before being pressed and dried into plates, according to a product profile from the Espoo, Finland-based Huhtamaki.
Concannon said there has been research showing that the shape of the plates — circular rather than rectangular — can also serve to cut down food waste as well.
Pingree said that in the wake of massive recent layoffs at paper mills in the state, “it’s good to see job opportunities going in the opposite direction.”