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In dry times, schools are reusing water
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To conserve water, Gainesville officials resolved to work with schools to "go paper" in cafeterias, but the idea seemed paper-thin to nutrition employees in the Hall County School system.

"The other side of that is if we go paper, we’re putting over 30,000 lunch trays and forks and spoons in the landfill everyday," said Cookie Palmer, nutrition program director for the Hall County School system.

Also, the schools’ dishwashers are a major source of sanitation in the kitchens, and without them the school would have to sanitize with chemicals, Palmer said.

"I would rather use the hot water sanitizer as long as we’re able to," Palmer said.

Instead of sacrificing the use of dishwashers to "go paper," kitchen managers for the county school system held an emergency meeting at the end of October. They devised their own water conservation plan for the kitchens of Hall schools.

Hoses that were once used to clean floors have been put away, Palmer said. Cafeteria employees must clean the floors the old-fashioned way.

"There’s an adjustment to using a mop when you’re accustomed to using a hose," Palmer said.

Cafeteria employees are required to reuse water left in sinks, water pitchers and from the hot wells on the cafeteria serving lines.

Examples of how water is being reused include:

Fruit is washed in a pan instead of under running water; the water can be used for mopping the floor later in the day.

Ice in pitchers is reused in the hot wells on the serving lines, providing steam to keep food hot.

Water that previously was dumped after being used on the serving lines is now used to mop the floor.

"We’re reusing water as many times as we actually can before we actually dump it," Palmer said.

The cafeterias are cutting down on the amount of ice they use, too. Juice is left in the freezer for an extra day so less ice is needed in coolers on field trips. Salad dressings are not iced down on the salad bars; leftover packets are thrown away at the end of the day.

On the breakfast serving lines, students who choose cereal and fruit or a biscuit and juice are not given a tray. This helps schools cut down on a portion of water used in the nearly 10,000 breakfasts they serve daily, Palmer said.

"They just take that in their hand and go eat," Palmer said.

And there are other conservation methods that are less noticeable.

The managers came up with new guidelines for using dishwashers to result in fewer uses.

Kitchen managers have started assigning cleaning duties on an "as needed" basis, and if possible, they use a paper towel in lieu of a fabric towel.

"If you can wait a day, wait a day," Palmer said. "And again, we would be using water that’s been (used) somewhere else."

The cafeterias are only washing full loads of laundry, and the nearly 300 employees have been instructed to turn off the water while they wash their hands.

Palmer said in two hours that she was in a kitchen one day, she washed her hands at least 40 times.

"Every time you change jobs, you have to wash your hands," Palmer said.

"We do a lot of hand washing, so just stopping the water during our hand washing is a big saver," Palmer said.

The individual kitchen managers are in charge of the daily enforcement of the water conservation procedures. As officials from the system’s central office visit, they ensure employees are complying and follow up with reinstruction if needed, Palmer said.

"Just like at home, you have to remember," Palmer said. "But, I see them reminding each other ‘turn off that water.’"

Palmer said the employees do not have to work longer hours; they just work differently.

"They’re having to think (about) and adjust the way they do things," Palmer said.

Palmer has not been able to determine how much water the kitchens have saved in the past month, but she knows that the schools as a whole have decreased water usage in relation to the past few years.

"We’re part of a bigger conservation project," Palmer said.

The Hall County school system also is taking other measures to cut back on water use, from leak detectors to installing low-flow toilets and shower heads.

Gainesville city schools is showing the same kind of vigilance, said Superintendent Steven Ballowe.

"We have installed the (low-flow) commodes in our schools ... as part of our new (construction) and during reconstruction projects," Ballowe said.

Both systems also are working on making sure the conservation message reaches students and their families by videotaping public service announcements. Both systems also participated in a "water summit" recently where school officials, parents and teachers discussed the drought and ways to conserve water.

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