In 2009, with no funds, but plenty of passion,
we co-founded Styrofoam Out of Schools (SOSnyc) with a group of concerned parents, educators and designers. We created an innovative and unlikely partnership with NYC's Department of Education (DOE) School Food and Parsons The New School to rid schools of 860,000 toxic and polluting Styrofoam (styrene foam) lunch trays used per day.
NYC public schools had been throwing “away” almost 4,250,000 harmful styrofoam trays per week. Over the past 20 years, that adds up to well over 3 BILLION styrene foam trays, used for 20- 30 minutes only, then exported out of state to landfills and incinerators
These styrene foam trays have been disproportionately used by low income children, who eat up to 3 meals per day for as many as 13 years with hot food served directly on the tray. NYC is the largest school district in the US (double the size of L.A.), servicing 1.1 million students with 80,000 teachers and thousands of additional personnel. Seventy-five percent of the 850,000 meals served per day are free or reduced.
Within one year, collaborative efforts resulted in "Trayless Tuesdays" across all 1700 NYC public schools. To date, that alone has resulted in the elimination of 100 million styrene foam trays from school lunches, incinerators and landfills with no additional cost to the City.
Now called Cafeteria Culture (CafCu), our organization has built strategic coalitions, resulting in the 2013 decision to completely eliminate styrene foam trays from all NYC schools. The City's agreement to co-purchase compostable plates with the 5 other largest U.S. school districts, catalyzed by CafCu's unstoppable grassroots efforts, will drive down cost and eliminate an impressive 3 MILLION styrene foam trays used per day in schools across the US--and reduce GHG emissions significantly.
NYC styrofoam ban
In December 2013, the NYC Council voted unanimously to ban styrene foam from the entire city! CafCu's role was critical to this success, collaborating with 15 other nonprofits and taking the lead in grassroots lobbying. We engaged entire school communities in every borough of NYC, government leaders, major manufacturers of food service ware, the environmental community and others. We also engaged public school students, primarily from low-income minority communities, in making giant puppets and leading student activism to get this measure passed. Debby Lee Cohen, CafCu's director, was sent the pen that Mayor Bloomberg used to sign the landmark legislation by Eric Goldstein, NRDC's Director of NYC Environment.
ZERO WASTE SCHOOLS
A key component of our work has been developing and leading our groundbreaking ARTS+ACTION Cafeteria Waste Reduction Program, teaching over 4,000 K-8th graders in 14 schools located primarily in low-income minority communities. Teaching the "why" before the "how," we empower students to be Cafeteria Rangers (or monitors) who oversee all sorting and recycling.
Parallel to the Ranger program is our interdisciplinary "Make Change Messaging" curriculum. Lessons align with Core Curriculum and culminate in student designed campaigns, such as building giant puppets or creating PSA-like videos, to engage entire communities on the linked issues of garbage, environmental injustice, and climate change. We will soon be sharing this program with all NYC schools via our online multimedia Toolkit.
Cafeteria Culture is one of five recipient organizations in North America to receive the inaugural 2015 UL Innovative Education Award (ULIEA) for Environmental-STEM education for our ARTS+ACTION school program (awarded via North American Association of Envrionmental Education).
Cafeteria Culture received a 2013 Environmental Quality Award from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for Environmental Education.
In 2010, CafCu Director, Debby Lee Cohen, was honored to receive the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) Green Schools Award for catalyzing Trayless Tuesdays.
Realizing ZERO WASTE, climate-smart solutions
Our core team has spent thousands of hours working closely with students and school staff in cafeterias in East Harlem, Crown Heights, East Flatbush, and the Lower East Side, fueling us with invaluable "user" knowledge that we could not have acquired in any other manner. We regularly share valuable on-the-ground information and recommendations regarding packaging, messaging, product and system design with the directors of government agencies, helping to accelerate urgently needed change.
Peace Out Polystyrene! An interview with Debby Lee Cohen,
As I started on this journey of looking into school cafeteria garbage bins and learning everything I could about NYC’s garbage, it became quite clear that the ability to create Zero Waste school cafeterias was totally achievable.
Since the city is responsible for procuring school food items, as well as for providing the post-consumption infrastructure (i.e. recycling and composting), the tray was one part of a whole system that needed to be redesigned. And, if we could make those system changes and train a whole generation of students, 1.1 million of them, to eat lunch without generating any garbage, they could take this knowledge home, potentially changing the post-consumption habits of millions of more New Yorkers.
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