Urban Schools Aim for Environmental Revolution

Nothing seemed
special about the plates from which students at a handful of Miami
schools devoured their meals for a few weeks last spring — round,
rigid and colorless, with four compartments for food and a fifth in
the center for a carton of milk. 

Looks, however,
can be deceiving: They were the vanguard of what could become an
environmental revolution in schools across the United

With any uneaten food, the plates, made
from sugar cane, can be thrown away and turned into a product
prized by gardeners and farmers everywhere: compost. If all goes as
planned, compostable plates will replace plastic foam lunch trays
by September not just for the 345,000 students in the Miami-Dade
County school system, but also for more than 2.6 million others

That would be some 271 million plates a
year, replacing enough foam trays to create a stack of plastic
several hundred miles tall. 

“I want our
money and resources for food going into children, not in garbage
going to the landfill,” said Penny Parham, the Miami school
district’s administrative director of food and

Compostable plates are but the first
initiative on the environmental checklist of the Urban
School Food Alliance
, a pioneering attempt by six
big-city school systems to create new markets for sustainable food
and lunchroom supplies. 

The alliance
members — the public school systems in Chicago, Dallas, Los
Angeles, Miami, New York and Orlando, Fla. — are betting that by
combining their purchasing power, they can persuade suppliers to
create and sell healthier and more environment-friendly products at
prices no system could negotiate

“We pay about 4 cents for a foam tray,
and compostable trays are about 15 cents — but volume is always the
game changer,” said Leslie Fowler, the director of nutrition
support services for the Chicago school system. “We want to set the
tone for the marketplace, rather than having the marketplace tell
us what’s available.” 

The compostable
plates are the first test of the alliance’s thesis. This week, the
New York City Education Department will open sealed bids to supply
the roughly 850,000 plates it needs each day for breakfast and
lunch programs in about 1,200 schools. New York is running a pilot
program, like Miami’s, in four schools, with 30 more expected to
join this month. 

If a winning
bidder is chosen, the other alliance members will be able to
piggyback on the contract, placing their own orders without having
to navigate a separate bidding process. The call for bids names all
six districts and says they must all be allowed to place orders at
the same price. 

The alliance’s
next target is healthier food. It is already looking at potential
suppliers of antibiotic-free chicken. School officials say possible
future initiatives include sustainable tableware, pesticide-free
fruit and goods with less packaging

The direct benefits of these efforts
may not always be obvious, or even noticeable. To a child,
antibiotic-free chicken tastes like any other chicken. And even a
huge purchase by the alliance would have little effect on farmers’
preferences for giving animals antibiotics, much less on the danger
the practice poses: spawning new classes of antibiotic-resistant

But short-term environmental and health
benefits are not the only goals, said Eric Goldstein, the chief
executive of school support services in New York City. Using
recyclable plates or serving healthier chicken sets an example that
students may carry into adulthood, he said, and that other school
systems may come to see as a

“It sounds corny,” Mr. Goldstein said,
“but we all believe in this.” 

The six
districts banded together in July 2012 at a school-nutrition
conference in Denver. They received a lift later last year when the
Natural Resources Defense
, a national advocacy group with a history of
pressing governments for environment-friendly changes, met with Mr.
Goldstein and other New York school executives to talk about
recycling and healthier food. 

“We were
pleasantly surprised when they told us they were interested both in
getting rid of polystyrene trays and moving forward on healthier
chicken,” said Mark Izeman, the director of the council’s New York

The council has recruited a law firm to
create a nonprofit corporation for the alliance and lent its
environmental expertise to help the six districts decide what to
buy next. “We’re delighted to work with them,” Mr. Izeman said.
“What’s not to like?” 

If the alliance
succeeds, it could help change nutrition and sustainability
policies across the nation. Already, other school districts are
asking to join the group. Eventually, Mr. Izeman said, the alliance
could be a template for sustainability efforts by other big food
bureaucracies. What works for school districts, after all, should
also work for institutions like hospitals and

But first, it has to work in public
schools. For now, that means producing a compostable plate that
school systems can afford. 

That may not be
easy. Foam trays are made from petroleum byproducts and are stamped
out at dizzying rates. Sugar-cane plates take longer to make and
require more machinery to produce in volume, said an official at
one manufacturer of recycled tableware who did not want to be named
because his company is involved in the alliance bid.

Mr. Goldstein said that 21
manufacturers had expressed interest in bidding, and that he
believed they would slash prices to win such a huge

But if not, the manufacturing official
said, there is a way for alliance members to recoup some of the
cost. Demand for compost is high, and by late next year, schools
may be deluged with it. 

“Budgets are
always tough,” the official said. “They could sell that mulch, a
buck or two a

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