Six City School Districts Partner To Lobby For Environmentally-Friendly Food Practices

In the United States, six large city school districts are working together to persuade suppliers to sell healthier and more environmentally-friendly products like compostable food trays. The Urban School Food Alliance is a pioneering attempt by a coalition of 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 — believe 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 alone, writes Michael Wines of The New York Times.

The compostable 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 for more than 2.6 million students nationwide.

"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 nutrition.

"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 alliance's first goal is the compostable trays. The New York City Education Department will open sealed bids to supply the roughly 850,000 trays it needs each day for breakfast and lunch programs in about 1,200 schools. Like Miami, New York is running a pilot program 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, and it is already looking at potential suppliers of antibiotic-free chicken. According to school officials, possible future initiatives include sustainable tableware, pesticide-free fruit and goods with less packaging waste.

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 standard.

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

If the alliance succeeds, it could help change nutrition and sustainability policies across the nation.

According to Mark Izeman, the director of the council's New York program, other school districts are also interested in joining the group. Eventually, Izeman said, the alliance could be a template for sustainability efforts by other big food bureaucracies.

12 3, 2013
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