This story is part of The Reader’s Climate Beacon Newsroom initiative with Solutions Journalism Network. From March to the end of September 2023, we are pursuing solutions-oriented stories about climate change’s effects in Omaha.

The garbage bags were streaked with ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. At the bottom sat a compacted, unidentifiable mass — the remnants of hundreds of lunches at Omaha South High School.

While it wasn’t appealing to look at, for South senior Mia Perales, the green bins marked “compost” smelled, metaphorically speaking, like success.

“It’s so awesome to see what you’ve been working for so long come true,” she said. “It’s very rewarding. And it makes me excited for the future. If this could happen, who knows what else we can do?”

Omaha South High School custodian Shawn Jakes helps a student sort his trash near the compost bin. Photo by Chris Bowling.

After about a year of stops and starts, South started a composting program in March thanks to Perales. The 18-year-old spent her junior and senior years advocating, petitioning and pestering administrators until the school of about 3,000 students, the largest high school in Nebraska, took the plunge.

So far, it seems to be working.

“It’s taken them time,” said South custodian Shawn Jakes, who helps students divvy up their waste and stack biodegradable trays, “but now, since I’m here, they’re getting it.”

In their first week, South students diverted about 1,100 pounds of biodegradable waste from landfills where it would have produced methane gas, the second-largest greenhouse gas and a major driver of climate change. Instead Hillside Solutions takes the waste, along with other compostable material from around Omaha, to their compost facilities where it breaks down into nutrient-rich soil.

Mia Perales (far left) stands with other Omaha South High School students who advocated for the school to implement composting. Photo by Chris Bowling.

So far 24 schools, representing about 9,000 students, compost through Hillside Solutions, diverting 15,000 pounds of food waste a week, according to Brent Crampton, the organization’s director of partnerships. Others hope to add their schools to those numbers.

“[It helps] being able to say, ‘We have these other schools in other districts able to make this work that have more budget issues with more students,’” said Rachel Carraher, a science teacher at Bellevue East High School after touring South’s composting program. “This is doable.”

‘We’re Doing It Because There’s a Need’

What’s most encouraging about Perales’ success is it’s a system change, pushing the fight against climate change off the individual and onto institutions such as schools, governments and companies, said Omaha Central High School senior Chlöe Johnson.

“If everyone was doing every tiny little thing that they could, it would be a drop in the bucket,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to do system change within our schools and within our state.”

Johnson and Perales are both members of Students for Sustainability, a citywide group of about a dozen high school students from Westside, Creighton Preparatory, Elkhorn, Omaha Public Schools and others. Most recently, the group organized their annual climate strike on April 14 that drew about 200 people to Memorial Park calling on the city and state to apply for federal climate funds, Nebraska to develop a climate action plan and for the Omaha Public Power District to close the North Omaha coal plant.

Students march during a climate strike at Memorial Park on April 14. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Johnson said she and other students would rather not have to be the mouthpiece for climate issues, but they don’t feel like they have a choice.

“If we had a city that was doing everything right, we wouldn’t need to have teenagers doing this,” she said. “We’re not exactly doing this because it’s fun. We’re doing it because there’s a need … if we lived in, like, Portland, Oregon or something, I don’t even know if we’d be in a group like this.”

While the City of Omaha is developing a climate action plan, it’s behind other cities such as Kansas City, Minneapolis and Des Moines. The seeming lack of urgency at the state and local level is frustrating, students said.

“A lot of people in Nebraska, politicians specifically, want to know why young Nebraskans are leaving,” Perales, who plans on attending Gonzaga University or the University of Oregon in the fall, told senators at the Nebraska Legislature in February. “I can tell you it’s not because the price of property taxes are rising. It is because our voices aren’t being heard, and they aren’t being taken seriously.”

Hitting Walls

Other students in Omaha find their sustainability efforts running into obstacles.

The University of Nebraska at Omaha has several 2030 sustainability goals, including reaching net-zero carbon emissions, diverting more than 90% of campus waste and promoting sustainable forms of transportation. Until recently, the university had a full-time sustainability coordinator to oversee progress. That position within UNO’s Office of Sustainability has been vacant for about a year and is now the responsibility of Zoe Miller, a third-year student who leads the student group Sustain UNO.

“It’s really tough [when you’re] relying on students who have other responsibilities,” Miller said. “I think a lot of the work that [the Office of Sustainability] does falls with [Sustain UNO].”

The students have had some success. Some dorms have composting access. The university bought and gave away 200 passes to Heartland Bike Share, said Sustain UNO member Nate Ostdiek. Through a community garden, the students provide fresh produce to the campus food pantry.

But budgetary restraints have kept a lid on many ideas, Miller and other students said, such as expanding the compost program, which is currently voluntary, or making Heartland Bike Share access free to all students.

For some students, such as Isabella Manhart, it’s disappointing to feel like sustainability isn’t a priority.

“College is a place where people build skills they’re going to use for the rest of their life … [sustainable skills] are really valuable, and I want for myself and my peers,” they said. “And the picture that I think was presented as I was deciding colleges is maybe not the picture that I’ve seen since coming here.”

Ostdiek said fighting climate change in Omaha as a student can feel aimless at times.

“We partner with a good number of community organizations, but it is incredibly decentralized,” he said. “It’s so hard to find out what everyone else is doing and how we can better support each other.”

A.T. Miller, UNO’s chief diversity officer, understands students’ frustration. Shortly after Miller was hired in February 2022, they took on the Office of Sustainability. The program, which had subsisted without regular funding, had 67 cents left in its account, Miller said. Miller and others were able to secure three paid student positions for the office, including Zoe Miller (no relation), but the focus in 2023 has been charting a future for the office.

It could be coming at the right time as the University of Nebraska unveiled its system-wide sustainability plan on April 28. A .T. Miller, along with others on the chancellor’s Sustainability Committee, are looking at grants and funding opportunities to bring in a full-time coordinator as well as, ideally, a staff and programming dollars.

“It is, of course, a setback to not have a sustainability coordinator,” A.T. Miller said. “However, to get back to a staffed office, I think it’s far healthier to say, ‘No, we want to get back when it’s a real position that has a future to it.’”

Beth Chalecki is a political science professor and director of the university’s academic approach to sustainability. She said increasingly more students want to learn about climate change and how to impact the systems that perpetuate it. UNO has degrees in environmental science as well as a sustainability concentration and minor. Sustainability and climate science also factor into classes in business, social sciences and the arts. And Chalecki said it’s not uncommon to pursue a new class at a student’s request.

But she said more could be done.

“I think if we had clear direction from the city … then we could make a lot of progress in a hurry,” Chalecki said. “I mean, a hurry as in a few years. We only have less than a decade to bend that carbon curve downward.”

A Word from Above

There is one leader whose clear directives are having effects in Omaha schools.

“The earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail,’” Pope Francis wrote in May 2015.

The Pope’s appeal to Catholics to take up the cause of climate change struck a chord with Eric Krakowski, assistant vice principal at Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart. He was an at-home composter and tried to make sustainable choices, but he realized Duchesne, a private Catholic girls school of about 300 students, could do more.

“That’s not a political statement,” Krakowski said, referring to the Pope’s comments. “That’s a matter of our religious faith.”

Eric Krakowski, assistant vice principal at Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart, poses inside the private Catholic school. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Since then Duschesne has made a lot of progress:

  • Students led a project in 2020 to put solar panels on Duchesne’s roof, which powers the school’s STEM lab. Since coming online the panels have generated 11.5 megawatts of power — enough to drive a car from New York to Los Angeles nearly 17 times.
  • In November 2022 the school reached net-zero waste (diverting more than 90% of its waste) eight years ahead of its 2030 target.
  • Since 2016, the school, built in 1881, has been awarded an Energy Star rating for its energy efficiency by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Its 2022 certification is proudly displayed under portraits of the archangel Gabriel.
  • Much of the perimeter of the building has been converted to gardens that sometimes provide produce for lunch.
  • Sustainability and climate change figures into several Duchesne courses, and Krakowski is co-teaching a theology class of Pope Francis’ call to action on climate change.
  • In 2020 Duchesne was recognized as a Green Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education for its commitment to sustainability.

Duchesne does have an advantage in that it’s a small school that services many affluent families. Its solar array, for example, was paid for by school donors. But it’s not about any one school or person doing everything perfectly, Krakowski said. It’s about setting an example, whether that’s for students, their families or other schools.

“Our hope is our students see what we’re doing, hear what we’re doing, learn about things in the classroom, have their eyes open to things going on in the world around them,” Krakowski said. “That’s the social awareness — that they see a need and that they feel driven, to some degree, in their own lives to act on that.”

The Pope’s message around climate change has also been received loud and clear at Creighton University, said Mary Ann Vinton, who oversees Creighton’s environmental science program. After the Pope’s declaration, Creighton organized faculty and student task forces, students formed their own advocacy groups, and the university set goals for 2028, including:

  • increasing sustainability classes
  • halving greenhouse gas emissions
  • decreasing campus waste by a quarter
  • increasing funding for student-driven initiatives

The progress may not be moving quickly enough for some — in 2019, 86% of students supported a referendum to divest from fossil fuels, which the president rejected — but staying committed to these goals sends a message to students.

“We all want to be part of a larger solution,” Vinton said. “If you can see how your role as an individual or as an institution is nesting within a broader strategy, it’s really good for morale. It’s hard to sustain if you don’t think your efforts are going to make a difference.”

‘Give Us a Couple Years’

Trying to change the world isn’t easy — especially when you’re a teenager in Omaha, Nebraska.

But there are bright moments, schools adopting composting, alternative forms of energy and goals to lessen their impact on climate change. The students know nothing’s going to change overnight, but doing this work together has ultimately made them more optimistic about the future.

“People underestimate the change they can create as one person, especially when they come together as a group,” said Ryan Quinn, a senior at Creighton Preparatory School.

Students protest for climate action on top of the Dodge Street Pedestrian Bridge near Memorial Park on April 14, 2023. Photo by Chris Bowling.

But the students are far from satisfied. When asked what they’d do if they were given control of the city, they quickly rattled off about 20 ideas. Those included expanding transit options, taxing carbon, growing native plants and investing in neighborhoods to make sustainability accessible for all.

They know it costs money. And they know change is hard. But they don’t care. If Omaha, Nebraska or the United States doesn’t get with the program soon, it won’t be long before a new generation is in charge.

“Give us a couple years, and we will take over,” Johnson. “We will be the adults.”

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Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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