By Michael Wines
Nothing seemed special about the plates from which students at a handful of Miami schools devoured their meals for a few weeks last spring — round, rigid and colorless, with four compartments for food and a fifth in the center for a carton of milk.
Looks, however, can be deceiving: They were the vanguard of what could become an environmental revolution in schools across the United States.
With any uneaten food, the 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 not just for the 345,000 students in the Miami-Dade County school system, but also for more than 2.6 million others nationwide.
That would be some 271 million plates a year, replacing enough foam trays to create a stack of plastic several hundred miles tall.
“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.
Compostable plates are but the first initiative on the environmental checklist of the Urban School Food Alliance, a pioneering attempt by six big-city 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, Fla. — are betting 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.
“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 compostable plates are the first test of the alliance’s thesis. This week, the New York City Education Department will open sealed bids to supply the roughly 850,000 plates it needs each day for breakfast and lunch programs in about 1,200 schools. New York is running a pilot program, like Miami’s, 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. It is already looking at potential suppliers of antibiotic-free chicken. School officials say possible future initiatives include sustainable tableware, pesticide-free fruit and goods with less packaging waste.
The direct benefits of these efforts may not always be obvious, or even noticeable. To a child, antibiotic-free chicken tastes like any other chicken. And even a huge purchase by the alliance would have little effect on farmers’ preferences for giving animals antibiotics, much less on the danger the practice poses: spawning new classes of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
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.
“It sounds corny,” Goldstein said, “but we all believe in this.”
The six districts banded together in July 2012 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 environment-friendly changes, met with Goldstein and other New York school executives to talk about recycling and healthier food.
“We were pleasantly surprised when they told us they were interested both in getting rid of polystyrene trays and moving forward on healthier chicken,” said Mark Izeman, the director of the council’s New York program.
The council has recruited a law firm to create a nonprofit corporation for the alliance and lent its environmental expertise to help the six districts decide what to buy next. “We’re delighted to work with them,” Izeman said. “What’s not to like?”
If the alliance succeeds, it could help change nutrition and sustainability policies across the nation. Already, other school districts are asking to join the group. Eventually, Izeman said, the alliance could be a template for sustainability efforts by other big food bureaucracies. What works for school districts, after all, should also work for institutions like hospitals and universities.
But first, it has to work in public schools. For now, that means producing a compostable plate that school systems can afford.
That may not be easy. Foam trays are made from petroleum byproducts and are stamped out at dizzying rates. Sugar-cane plates take longer to make and require more machinery to produce in volume, said an official at one manufacturer of recycled tableware who did not want to be named because his company is involved in the alliance bid.
Goldstein said that 21 manufacturers had expressed interest in bidding, and that he believed they would slash prices to win such a huge contract.
But if not, the manufacturing official said, there is a way for alliance members to recoup some of the cost. Demand for compost is high, and by late next year, schools may be deluged with it.
“Budgets are always tough,” the official said. “They could sell that mulch, a buck or two a bag.”