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The Unlikely Alliance That Is Fixing School Lunches

Even in some very cash-strapped districts, kids are now eating antibiotic-free chicken on compostable plates.

The Unlikely Alliance That Is Fixing School Lunches
[Photos: courtesy NRDC]

Eric Goldstein calls himself a glorified caterer. If that’s true, he has a lot of glory under his belt. He’s in charge of the serving almost 1 million meals every single day, putting him at the helm of the second largest food service program in the nation, after the U.S. military. And his work might be even harder: he’s feeding picky kids.

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For years, Goldstein, who heads the New York office that runs the city’s school lunch program, has worked to introduce better, healthier meals to kids. Whereas he once visited schools where kids didn’t know what carrots were, today every New York City school has its own salad bar.

But there were limits: Antibiotic-free chicken or grass-fed beef were luxuries New York City couldn’t afford. Nor did the district want to spend a lot more money to get rid of polystyrene trays, which though they are terrible for the environment, cost four times less than compostable paper (and have since been banned by the city). The district only spends $2.70 a meal, of which roughly only $1.20 are food costs–and budgets are always tight.

“We’re presented with the following options: do nothing or do something about it. We decided to do something about it,” Goldstein says.

In 2012, the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group headquartered in New York, approached Goldstein with a proposal to work together to improve school food, figuring that doing so would directly improve the health of some of the most disadvantaged kids in the city. The group also wanted to develop ways to use government spending to expand the market for sustainable foods, as has been done for other environmentally-friendly products like recycled paper and green building materials.

“We’ve seen, in the past, that when government uses its purchasing power, it can often move the market and drive progressive change on environmental issues. And food is the next frontier,” says Mark Izeman, NRDC’s New York urban program director. He didn’t know what to expect when he first met with Goldstein.

It turns out Goldstein not only was on board right away–he proposed something bigger: Getting school districts of other big cities involved. While New York is a large buyer, it might not be big enough to move the market on its own, he figured.

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That’s where the Urban School Food Alliance was born, involving major city school districts–New York, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas and Orlando–that together feed 2.9 million kids a day and procure more than $550 million in food a year. Seventy percent of the kids served are from poorer backgrounds, qualifying for free or discounted lunch.

The alliance didn’t want only to take positions on policy or talk about issues. It wanted to take action and break new ground. This makes it a unique type of collaboration, with city agencies working together from within large government bureaucracies across state lines. (These schools also felt poorly served by the national School Nutrition Association, a group which Goldstein says pays more attention to the needs of smaller school districts.)

First, the districts decided to take on an issue they knew they could handle: the polystyrene trays in school cafeterias. They were introduced decades ago because they were so cheap; each tray costs 4 cents each on average, where paper is 12 cents. New York City had been trying to move off of them for years, but the economics made it difficult.

“A lot of companies had promises, but they just never materialized,” Goldstein says. “So we said, let’s try to pool our resources, come out with a big bid, and try to lead the market progressively–using our buying power to get them there. So we’re not mandating or regulating. It’s carrot, not stick.” The districts jointly sought bidders. If they were successful, they’d remove 225 million polystyrene trays from landfills every year.

At first the leading bid was for material made in Asia, from sorghum and bamboo. Then a better option came a long: a recycled paper material that would be manufactured in Maine by the Finnish paper company Huhtamaki, which would retool its factory to win the bid. The design was also innovative. The milk goes in the middle, surrounded by four food compartments, so the tray is more balanced. More importantly, the tray was round: “No one eats from a rectangle at home. We wanted to get off that institutional feel,” says Goldstein. After user testing, the schools decided together they had a winner. The trays would only cost just a penny more each than the plastic.

That was only the first victory for the alliance. The group announced last December they would all follow a new antibiotic-free standard when buying chicken, one of the most popular items served in cafeterias. The idea is that this would help add pressure major suppliers to produce more supply, eventually at a lower cost. Fast food chains, like McDonald’s and Chik-Fil-A, as well as the biggest poultry producers, like Perdue and Tyson’s, are also starting to make the shift. Though there’s been a wave of announcements, Izeman says the largest school districts–representing so many kids–are an important symbol.

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The next issue the schools will be tackling is moving to compostable cutlery, which will replace the cumbersome “sporks” many schools now use. One day, Goldstein says, it would be his dream to also get grass-fed beef in the schools. Soon, the alliance will also invite more city districts to join, which will increase their power to move markets even more.

The backdrop to all of this is the changing thinking around school food. Originally, government-subsidized school lunch programs started in the 1940s, after the military realized many of its conscripts during both world wars were skinny and poorly nourished. But by the 1960s and ‘70s, they were viewed as a welfare program and gutted–resulting in the mush you probably think of when you think of cafeterias. Slowly, over the last decade, as awareness of an obesity epidemic has grown, the emphasis has gone back to serving healthier foods–and more sustainable ones.

“There’s been a very profound shift in how people think about food and what they’re eating and how they’re eating it,” says Goldstein. “We’re trying to reinvent ourselves in a way where we are very constrained by what we can serve and the money we have to serve it.”

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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