Dishes to Dirt: Six School Districts Step Up on Sustainability | Editorial

The Urban School Food Alliance is bringing greener choices to our schools, starting with the replacement of foam trays used in cafeterias with an affordable, compostable alternative.

Think of it: 271 million school lunch trays a year will soon be fodder for more food, instead of landfill. Yes, for six major metropolitan school districts, starting this fall, the current disposable polystyrene trays, which are essentially segmented plates, will be replaced by compostable trays made from a sugarcane byproduct. Instead of being scraped and then thrown away to head to landfill, these new trays go “away” along with food waste to become compost. This is made possible via a savvy collaboration geared toward bulking up the purchasing power of schools in order to improve the quality of food served, and, in this case, the sustainability of the tools used to serve it.

The Urban School Food Alliance, created in 2012, is made up of a collection of forward-thinking school districts from across the country: New York City (NYC) Public Schools, the Los Angeles Unified School District, Chicago Public Schools, Dallas Independent School District, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and Orange County Public Schools in Orlando. Now, we can chalk up a significant win for this new green team, and for our planet.

I love that the Alliance has addressed a persistent problem through a solution that both relies on scale and gets more significant as it grows. The impact is huge. When the NYC Department of Education (NYC DOE) announced its role in the Alliance last year, it noted that together the group was grappling with how to improve 2.9 million daily lunches. Banding together brought their collective bargaining power way up—and enabled the solution to become affordable. When the NYC DOE put out a bid for compostable trays for its some 850,000 daily meals as an opening salvo as part of the Alliance, the New York Times reported in December, it was looking to close the gap between the approximately 14 cents per unit for compostable alternatives and the 4 cents or so per foam tray then in use. Close the gap it did: with the potential for Alliance members to “piggyback” on the winning bid, the sugarcane alternative is now priced at 4 cents per unit.

This is an exciting example of creativity in action, of using a new strategy to do the right thing. Going green is all too often hooked to perceptions of a higher price tag—even if long-term savings are well articulated. That the Alliance pulled off this green choice at the right short-term price, too, shows that large-scale green choices do not need to break the bank if the market keeps driving pricing down. It gives me hope, as it models new thinking on sustainability. May it also create momentum within the vast education system to follow this leadership.

An important side benefit, too, is that this green solution is one that is visible to our children every day in the school cafeteria. It provides a daily opportunity to raise awareness about the impact of our actions on our planet. I hope the schools involved will take the initiative full circle and educate the kids about what “away” means when they toss out these new trays with their uneaten food.


Rebecca T. Miller Editor-in-Chief

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