A recent dinner with Urban School Food Alliance (USFA) partners and NRDC proves change is possible when we are unified. These savvy food heroes are collaborating to bring nutritious food and sustainable practices to MILLIONS of kids across the country.

Eric Goldstein, USFA Chair and CEO of School Support Services at New York City’s Department of Education, oversees 1 million meals per day. He explained the challenge making changes, even with a seemingly simple switch away from loathsome polystyrene foam trays. Turns out 155 million foam trays were used in NYC cafeterias each year. Bids for a 12-15 cent alternative tray versus the cheap 3.5 cent foam tray “slapped us back to reality.” Fortunately, the Urban School Food Alliance has banded together the nation’s largest school districts to leverage massive purchasing power and drive better solutions. After developing new tray specs to satisfy the mighty Alliance, a successful bid came in. In May 2015, ASFA announced compostable plates would be used in six partner districts, replacing 225 million polystyrene foam trays used annually.

Currently the Alliance’s seven partners include New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami/Dade, Dallas, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando. This serves 4 million students or 12% of the K-12 student population in the country. Partners are the people that procure, prepare, serve and ultimately educate children about food. Having $500 million in annual purchasing power, they are advancing good food practices and transforming the market. With the incentive of steady bulk demand, they are bringing down costs, providing millions of students with more nutritious food, cutting waste and setting new industry standards. In December 2014, the Alliance announced their commitment to buy only antibiotic-free chicken for the 2.9 million kids served in their public schools every day. Following this landmark announcement, McDonald’s, Panera, Tyson and others large buyers have made similar commitments to buy antibiotic-free chicken. NRDC has been providing expertise to the Alliance in designing standards and developing sustainable initiatives. Mark Izeman, NRDC Senior Attorney, notes the importance of both producing food with environmental protection in mind and changing the way kids eat for better health. Goldstein adds, “It’s the democratization of food.” More than 70% of the students in partner school districts are economically disadvantaged and school meals often represent more than half of the food they consume each day.

Leslie Fowler is the Executive Director of Nutrition Support Services at the Chicago Public Schools, which serves 380,000 meals per day on a slim budget. She values sharing best practices with peers and procuring together to save money, “A penny saved in Chicago worth a million dollars.” She is reinvesting savings into fresh produce, they now serve kiwi and grapes for the first time. The clout of the Alliance helps them negotiate with suppliers for a range of better options, such as the humane treatment of animals, milk with no hormones, 100% beef patties and local sourcing. CPS has spread the savings by acting as a central sourcing depot for other surrounding school districts, including Evanston, Skokie, Indiana and Missouri.

Plans to scale up are now underway with a goal to grow Alliance partnerships from 7 to 25 populous school districts. The next big nation-wide moves under consideration include antibiotic-free turkey, pork and beef, compostable cutlery (out with the spork!), and organic fruits and vegetables. Here’s a rundown of some innovations each partner is working on:

New York: buying local as much as possible, including 100% NY beef; improving cafeteria ambience to be more appealing to jr. high and high school students; bringing scratch cooking back, such as baking bread on-site

Chicago: offering free meals outside of school during the summer (now in 109 schools, especially in food deserts); serving breakfast After the Bell and grab and go for improved academic success; promoting healthy eating with Fresh Attitudes programs and farmers-to- school presentations linked with taste tests and recipes

Dallas: providing meal service over breaks; moving to a central kitchen for produce preparation to decrease waste; bringing more school gardens to the district; composting produce waste from central kitchen and using compost to nourish school gardens

Ft. Lauderdale/Broward County: creating high school cafeterias that students enjoy (Chipotle-ish); hiring a celebrity chef to revamp the menu and add signature dishes, such as a kale salad

Los Angeles: piloting vegan, plant-based protein options for all that ideally will be recognized by the USDA; moving food prep from a central kitchen to on-site at 130 schools

Orlando/Orange County, FL: developed an interactive website tool that identifies food allergies and offers menu selections with healthy choices, fresh-made sandwiches can be pre-ordered

(Miami/Dade rep not present at dinner)

Amy Liszt/Academy for Global Citizenship in Chicago, Mark Izeman/NRDC, Leslie Fowler/Chicago Public Schools & USFA Secretary


Amanda Hanley/Hanley Foundation and Eric Goldstein/New York City’s Department of Education & USFA Chair