Here’s a math lesson that jumps off the page because it impacts the wellbeing of a most precious resource: our school children. Contrary to what you may recall from early math lessons, addition can produce smaller sums. The Urban School Food Alliance, a coalition of the largest school districts in the United States that includes New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas and Orlando has used it’s collective buying power to lower costs and purchase safer plates and healthier food for the 2.9 million children it serves lunch to each school day.

A high school cafeteria in Calhan, Colorado. (Photo Credit: David Shankbone)

A high school cafeteria in Calhan, Colorado. (Photo Credit: David Shankbone)

The Urban School Alliance has reached an agreement with Huhtamaki, an American plate vendor based in Maine, for compostable round plates at cafeterias, bidding adieu to polystyrene trays that were serving up a dose of the potent neurotoxin and probable human carcinogen Styrene along with school lunches. Styrofoam is made from the plastic polystyrene, which is made of building blocks called styrene monomers. When you drink your steaming cup of coffee or eat a hot school lunch off a Styrofoam tray, you also take in small doses of styrene that leach from it. “Trace amounts of styrene as well as various chemical additives in polystyrene migrate into food, which increases significantly in hot liquids,” explains Olga Naidenko, PhD, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group.

The Guardian Reported on August 27th 2014 in an article by Leigh Stringer that:

“Polystyrene foam packaging has been a topic of environmental debate for decades, and several international brands have made moves to phase it out. This slow trend may have been accelerated last month when the National Research Council (NRC) affirmed the National Toxicology Program’s 2011 finding that the organic compound styrene can “reasonably be anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”

“In terms of consumer hazards, the biggest styrene concern is with food packaging, as studies have shown that this substance can leech out of polystyrene takeout food and drink containers, says Mike Schade of Safer Chemicals. “If you drink coffee or soup or eat Chinese food from a polystyrene foam container you can potentially be exposed to this chemical, which government agencies consider reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”

This landmark collaboration between the districts and with Huhtamaki will collectively remove 225 million polystyrene trays nationwide annually.

“Working with the Urban School Food Alliance has obviously been beneficial for our company, but at the same time, producing the compostable plates is the right thing to do for the kids within those schools and the environment,” says Wess Hudelson, Communications Manager, Huhtamaki North America. We look forward to growing this relationship.”

The new plates are American-made round, compostable plates manufactured in Maine from recycled newsprint. This is a brand new product in food services, specifically made with direct specifications from the Urban School Food as far as shape, compartments, etc. Food and nutrition directors in the Alliance also specified the round shape to allow students to eat their food off of plates like they do at home, replacing the institutional rectangular lunch tray.

Schools across America use polystyrene trays because they cost less than compostable ones. Polystyrene trays average about $0.04 apiece, compared to its compostable counterpart, which averages about $0.12 cents each. Given the extremely tight budgets in school meal programs, affording compostable plates seemed impossible until the Urban School Food Alliance districts used their collective purchasing power to innovate a compostable round plate for schools at an affordable cost of $0.049 each. In addition, other schools districts would be able to purchase these same plates moving forward.

The Urban School Food Alliance collectively procure more than $550 million in food and supplies annually to serve more than 2.9 million students enrolled in their schools. A landmark collaboration, the Urban School Food Alliance’s six districts worked together to challenge industry to develop an innovative and affordable environmentally-friendly round plate. The districts collectively serve 2.5 million meals daily.

Building upon the success with replacing the polystyrene trays with safer, environmentally superior compostable paper plates, The Urban School Alliance has joined with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to leverage its purchasing power for healthier lunches to put on the healthier plates.

According to a release by the Urban School Food Alliance and The Alliance for a Healthier Generation (the Alliance), founded by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation to reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity:

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation has joined with the Urban School Food Alliance to help schools serve children healthy, balanced meals that are low in saturated fat, sugar and sodium and include fresh fruits, vegetables, lean protein, low fat dairy and whole grains. Leveraging combined meal-related budgets totaling over $3 billion from the USFA school districts and the districts that work with the Alliance, this partnership will drive innovative market solutions that are nutritionally wholesome, ecologically sound, economically viable and socially responsible. As a result, 30 million students in over 5,000 school districts will have the opportunity to access high quality food and products at more competitive prices.

USFA’s purchasing power of $550 million has driven systemic and wholesale change to the school food programs in its six member districts. Since its inception in 2012, the USFA has been successful at putting ambitious procurement goals into practice at its six member districts. Just last year, in collaboration with the Natural Resources Defense Council, it drove companies to supply antibiotic-free chicken products to its schools to protect the health of students.

“With our joint purchasing power with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, manufacturers are taking note and listening,” said Urban School Food Alliance Chairman Eric Goldstein, who also serves as chief executive officer of School Support Services for the New York City Department of Education. “The demand for healthier food and environmentally-friendly supplies for schools is now the norm. It’s great to see that industry is working with us for the betterment of student health and the environment.”

Food supplier Tom Ferris, VP of School Foodservice for AdvancePierre adds:

“AdvancePierre Foods is committed to feeding children better so that they can learn better. This partnership underscores the need for manufacturers to innovate by producing wholesome and healthy food that kids will eat, and that’s a challenge we’re excited to continue meeting. AdvancePierre has revolutionized its product offerings for schools to exceed USDA guidelines and recognizes that challenges such as this have made us a better company and a better partner.”

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