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Urban schools team up to serve greener, healthier lunches

Big districts banding together to buy biodegradable trays made of sugar cane
Coming this fall, students at six of the nation’s largest urban districts will be served lunch on round plates made of biodegradable sugar cane.
Coming this fall, students at six of the nation’s largest urban districts will be served lunch on round plates made of biodegradable sugar cane.

Six of the nation’s biggest school districts have taken another bold step in changing the face of school lunches. The districts in the Urban School Food Alliance—New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas, and Orlando—have banded together to purchase biodegradable trays made of sugar cane to cut down on both cost and waste.

The alliance formed in July 2012, with the goals of improving the quality of school food and lessening the environmental impact of food service. In total, the alliance bought more than $530 million in cafeteria food and supplies last year, and the six districts serve 2.6 million meals every school day.

Most districts use plastic foam trays that are not easily recyclable and don’t break down naturally when placed in landfills, says Penny Parham, administrative director of the Department of Food and Nutrition at Miami-Dade County Public Schools. But biodegradable trays made from sugar cane are easy to compost, which is in demand by contractors for use as a fertilizer for organic crops.

“The different food directors in the big cities are faced with the same limited budgets,” Parham says. “Getting a very affordable, disposable tray with a lower environmental impact is important because we pay for all of it—buying it, bagging it up to throw away, and the waste fees.”

Last spring, Miami-Dade piloted a biodegradable tray in four schools, and New York City is testing the trays this year. The problem for the districts to buy the trays on their own is the cost: in Miami-Dade, it costs about three cents for a polystyrene tray, and between 12 and 15 cents for a sugar cane tray.

Los Angeles USD has been using only biodegradable trays since July 2012. Because some manufacturers are located close by in Southern California, the district only pays about 5 to 6 cents per tray. “We believe, by partnering with other districts, we will have the ability to reduce costs further,” says David Binkle, director of food services at Los Angeles USD.

The New York City district opened a bid in late November for companies to supply biodegradable trays to its 1,200 schools next school year. Some 21 suppliers have shown interest, Binkle says.

When New York City signs a contract, all six districts will be able to purchase trays at the same time, without a separate bidding process. The company chosen will be announced in the spring.

The Urban School Food Alliance is also developing a plan to purchase antibiotic free chicken for school cafeterias. Many animals are administered antibiotics, which can cause humans who eat them to develop a bacterial resistance to medications. “Our hope is that by banding together and driving the market nationally, it will benefit other districts who can buy affordable trays and other things,” Parham says. This kind of partnership could also cut costs for universities, health care systems, and any other large food service provider, Binkle says.

The National Resources Defense Council is providing lawyers pro bono to help the alliance become a nonprofit organization, and also offering input on what items the districts should purchase in the future. Binkle expects to add new members within the next two years, after gaining nonprofit status and working through the cafeteria tray initiative.

“We need to make it work first, so it’s not just something we’re going to talk about but something we’re going to do,” Binkle says.