February 15, 2014

Peace Out Polystyrene! An interview with Debby Lee Cohen of Cafeteria Culture.

Role model alert! Debby Lee Cohen (right) is founder and director of Cafeteria Culture, a New York City based non-profit that is working to create Zero Waste school cafeterias. She is aiming to reduce the 860,000 polystyrene (aka styrofoam) lunch trays that are used and then thrown out in NYC schools daily. You read correctly. 860,000 polystyrene lunch trays used daily in NYC!

If that is not admirable enough- Cafeteria Culture was a driving force behind the newly passed, unanimously voted upon legislation to ban polystyrene foam. HORRAY! The ban is said to go into effect July 1st, 2015. Earlier this year, NYC School Food, in alliance with 5 of the largest school districts in the U.S., issued a request for bids (RFP) for school food compostable plates. This contract will eliminate 2.9 MILLION polystyrene foam school trays used per day! Wowza. [DC1] 

What is Cafeteria Culture and how was it created?
Cafeteria Culture was founded as Styrofoam out of Schools (SOSnyc) in the spring of 2009. Before I had the issue of styrofoam trays on my mind, I was thinking about new ways to visually communicate climate change, in particular, to teens. There wasn’t much  understanding of climate change, in fact, I think there is still enormous disparity across NYC in terms of environmental education.

I went to an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History with my daughters and their friends. The exhibit was full of visuals, but it was a bit cold in that it didn’t really grab you emotionally and it didn’t grab the kids. They ran through most of the exhibit. About three quarters of the way through, my youngest daughter, who was then seven, stopped mesmerized at this diorama of a stuffed, life-sized polar bear standing on a pile of trash, our trash. It wasn’t like a beautiful crafted, scaled model, it was life sized. She turned around and said “mom, I’m not eating school lunch anymore” and I was like, what?

In that pile of trash was a styrofoam tray. She made a connection between her school lunch and polar bears -which is quite a powerful image for kids- and connected it to climate change. I went home and I decided to do some research. I thought, wow, I don’t know anything about styrofoam trays and  kids are eating directly off of them every day. I also had no idea that there were 860,000 of them used per day in New York City public schools. My first thought was this is an easy problem to solve, let’s work on this, let’s just get rid of these trays!

I got together with a couple of parents, one a web designer, another a teacher at Parsons, another parent who was already involved with the issue and my first thought was let’s just slam Department of Ed with an animated viral campaign. But then I started to do more research. I went into cafeterias to collect hundreds of used trays to build an installation with my Parsons students. We noticed all the garbage and other things too. There was a huge amount of stigma around school lunch. I had worked with food insecure teens. You could go into a high school and see groups of girls who just would not eat lunch because they didn’t want to be seen with a styrofoam tray in their hands. That is heartbreaking. We absolutely did not want to add to this problem.

So we put a petition on-line, calling to eliminate Styrofoam trays from all NYC schools. We got 500 signatures in just a few days. In my daughter’s cafeteria, I met the then School Food  Regional Director, Stephen O’Brien, He was already concerned about the Styrofoam tray issue and was working with pockets of parents who wanted to get rid of them at their kids’ schools. He suggested that SOSnyc meet with the citywide Directors of School Food.
I practiced my elevator pitch then, called the head of the media office for the Department of Ed. I talked about the health and environmental concerns. Then I said, “You can work with us and here is an opportunity, or you can work against us.” We got a  call back immediately, set up the meeting, and it was very productive. Our goal was to reduce styrofoam tray use by 20% within one year. Remarkably, we met that goal in one year’s time.
What is Trayless Tuesdays?
In 2010, catalyzed by our work with the Office of School Food, Department of Ed initiated Trayless Tuesdays citywide, aka one day per week without polystyrene trays in all 1,700 NYC public schools. To date, this alone has diverted over 70 million polystyrene trays from our kids’ lunches, landfills, and incinerators. 

It was actually amazing; we partnered with Parsons students, who came up with many ideas, including Trayless Tuesdays because one day per week without the tray would equal a 20% reduction. There was already one day per week when burgers or non-saucy food items were being served and the City was already contracting the paper boats (like a hot dog tray but a little bigger). It was Stephen O’Brien’s idea to pilot the paper boats for Trayless Tuesdays. The paper boats could be recycled if clean enough or they could be  composted, if and when composting would be initiated (which started to happen 2 years later).

Of course there was controversy. City led composting in schools did not yet exist and you have to realize that NYC is feeding kids who are in serious need of these meals; 75% of 860,00 meals that are served per day are reduced or free (that number might be higher now). That means that one school meal is really important. So if a child doesn’t like their salad touching their hamburger, that’s a big deal. Then there was the issue how the kids would carry the milk to the table without a tray. So we piloted the paper boats and, of course, kids figured it out and got everything to the table without a tray.

What really helped us to reach that goal and the recent goal of completely eliminating these toxic and polluting styrene foam trays from schools was the decision to give up the fight. By building trusting relationships with the people who could facilitate the change, we could learn from them, and hope that they would learn from us, which is exactly what happened.
On the top of the Cafeteria Culture website it says, “Working creatively to achieve Zero Waste public school cafeterias and vibrant communities”. What does this mean?
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.

Cafeteria Culture teaches students to be Cafeteria Rangers and student advocates and leads Zero Waste Lunch Challenge days, resulting in as little as 13 ounces of trash after lunch for hundreds of students! This totally inspires students and staff. What remains is mostly plastic wrap that is not recyclable. We are advocating to get rid of all of this non-recyclable plastic wrap.

Like Cafeteria Culture says at the bottom of their website “We envision a future where landfill garbage as we know it, no longer exists; where post consumption waste, from food to packaging, is drastically reduced and what remains benefits our schools, communities, and the environment. “

What are some of Cafeteria Culture’s greatest achievements?
We are demonstrating that teaching eco-literacy and Student Citizenry can reduce public resources needed for creating a climate-smart city. By teaching students the “why” before the “how” and empowering them to be leaders in the cafeteria, we are proving that schools can dramatically decrease cafeteria garbage, save NYC money, and reduce carbon and methane emissions.

But perhaps most notable has been our ability, as a small group of concerned citizens, to drive forward gigantic policy change, that is already shifting trends nationwide. We provided the unstoppable passion, creativity, and dedication needed to completely eliminate styrene foam trays from NYC schools, paving the way for 5 other cities to jump on board. Our grassroots lobbying, frontline support, and ability to attract media attention with student-activists and giant puppets was critical in achieving the December 2013 NY City Council unanimous vote to ban styrene foam.

What does the future hold for Cafeteria Culture?
We plan to remain on the cutting-edge of change by taking more risks, building new partnerships, and innovating waste reduction education. We are creating a Cafeteria Waste Reduction “edutainment” toolkit to share with all schools, making good use of our team’s media and messaging skills to achieve our zero waste goals.

To get involved with Cafeteria Culture go to CafeteriaCulture.org or contact: info@cafeteriaculture.org
To learn more watch this short video on Cafeteria Culture!


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