First Person

One Mom’s Mission to Get Rid of Styrofoam Trays

Although Debby Lee Cohen asked her children every day what they ate for lunch, it never occurred to her to ask them what their school lunch was served on, and so, like most New York City parents, she remained blissfully ignorant. A trip last spring to the Climate Change exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, however, changed all that.

Cohen’s 7-year old daughter stood staring at a diorama of a life-size polar bear standing on a melted island covered with trash. Then she turned around and announced that she would no longer buy school lunch in order “to save the polar bears.” And that’s how Debby Lee Cohen discovered that in New York City school lunches are served on Styrofoam trays.

We interviewed Debby Lee, a teacher at Parsons The New School for Design, to find out the health and environmental hazards of using Styrofoam and what parents and educators can do to get rid of the Styrofoam trays at their schools.

Why are you so determined to get rid of the Styrofoam trays in our schools?

Styrofoam (polystyrene) trays are the worst kept secret in NYC schools. NYC schools use 850,000 trays per day, which amounts to 153 million trays a year! They are terrible for our children’s health and for the environment. Some children eat three meals a day directly off of these trays, which are made up of the chemicals benzene and styrene. Styrene, a possible carcinogen, leaches into hot foods and has been linked to central nervous system disorders such as headaches, fatigue, depression, and hearing loss. New York State passed legislation banning toxic cleaning products in all schools. Parents should demand toxic-free school lunches as well. We should not be taking risks with our children’s health.

If that’s not bad enough, polystyrene is a petroleum-based product which stays around for centuries, if not longer, taking up an enormous amount of landfill space. Solid waste adds a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

Why then are we still using Styrofoam?

Styrofoam is cheap, extremely lightweight, and insulates well. In fact, the price per tray just came down from 4 cents to 3 cents! Most of the available alternatives, such as biodegradable sugarcane trays, cost much more. And although prices of alternative disposables are slowly coming down due to increased demand, the prices are not coming down fast enough to make the change that is needed.

How did you make the transition from an informed, angry mom to an activist?

A few weeks after I discovered our children were eating off of Styrofoam trays, I had the opportunity with my Parsons 3-D students to create am installation out of used Styrofoam trays. I was in school cafeterias pulling out hundreds of dirty trays from the trash and realized that a significant number were barely used. My initial thought was — why don’t we have a “don’t need, don’t take” policy in place. This would not only reduce the number of trays thrown out but would save the city money. For example, a student who only buys a sandwich and a drink doesn’t really need a tray.

I started making phone calls everyday, looking for some organization that was dealing with the tray issue. Although I found some amazing individuals, like parent Helen Greenberg, who were working hard to make change within their own school, there was no group working on trays as a citywide issue. I wondered if parents of children receiving free and subsidized school lunch had a clue about the harmful effects of Styrofoam trays.

I was already in discussion with another parent and web designer, Robin Perl, about creating a website about climate change. We saw the tray issue as a solvable problem.  Robin designed an effective site and gathered quotes from doctors at Mt. Sinai Medical Center and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which gave us credibility. We sent out emails and petitions to everyone we knew and our organization, Styrofoam Out of Schools (SOS), was formed.

You’ve succeeded in bringing Trayless Tuesday to our schools. Can you describe what Trayless Tuesday is and how you made it happen?

Robin Perl and I, along with fellow Parsons teacher and product designer, Jessica Corr, and parent Helen Greenberg, asked for a meeting with the Department of Education’s Eric Goldstein and other SchoolFood directors. We agreed in the meeting to find ways of reducing tray use with Jessica’s Parsons class working in a school cafeteria. Out of this class, the idea of Trayless Tuesday, a trend that was already taking place on college campuses, was born. The Department of Education agreed to try it out and as of March 2010 all city schools participate in Trayless Tuesday, which reduces the use of Styrofoam trays by 20 percent, or 850,00 trays per week.

Right now Parsons students are designing posters to support Trayless Tuesday and to improve cafeteria recycling. Unfortunately, these posters will not arrive in schools until the fall. In the meantime, we need parents and administrators to explain to staff and students what Trayless Tuesday is all about and why it’s such an important movement for our schools.

How are you working to get rid of Styrofoam trays the other four days of the week?

The first step is to use recyclable paper products on pizza days and all other days and meals that do not have a saucy component. SchoolFood is already purchasing paper boats (what looks like a paper hot dog tray but larger), which it will substitute for the Styrofoam trays for all breakfast meals and soon on pizza days as well. SchoolFood director Stephen O’Brien is dedicated to making this change happen.

With the support of SchoolFood, our legislators, and the mayor’s office, we need to begin piloting alternative trays and systems in order to find solutions which do not threaten our children’s health while also significantly reducing our carbon emissions. This will take true collaboration involving many parties. We need to bring manufacturers, cafeteria and custodial unions, the recycling mill managers, legislators, and the city’s health, education, and santation departments together to formulate a viable long-term plan.

It is also time to make the elimination of Styrofoam a national movement. By increasing demand for alternative products, we can bring the price down on a national level. NYC should partner with other large East Coast cities and counties to increase buying power.

Schools can substitute their Styrofoam trays for biodegradable sugar-cane trays or reusable, washable trays if they have a dishwasher. How many schools are no longer using Styrofoam trays? What should a parent do if they want to get rid of the Styrofoam trays at their school?

I would first encourage parents to attend their school’s Wellness Committee meeting and ask that the paper boats be used instead of Styrofoam whenever possible. If your school does not have a Wellness Committee, NYC Green Schools has information about how to get one started. The city also has guidelines for establishing a Wellness Committee at your school.

Reusable trays would be great. Currently, however, there are only 30 public schools in the city that still have dishwashers and some schools do not even have the plumbing to support a dishwasher.

Twelve schools are presently self-funding the extra cost to purchase biodegradable sugarcane trays. I strongly encourage schools that can raise the money to make the change to sugarcane trays in order to keep their children from eating off of Styrofoam. Presently, however, there is no free composting facility or pick-up available (something we should all be advocating for), so these trays go directly into sealed landfills where they do not biodegrade for a very long time.

Our website explains the steps a parent can take to get rid of Styrofoam in their school.

Is there anything else you’d like people to know?

SOS is planning on setting up pilots for a variety of alternative possibilities, including composting for all the schools that use the sugar-cane trays, providing energy-efficient or solar-powered dishwashers for reusable trays, employing personal reusable trays and cutlery, and piloting new disposable prototypes as well as system changes that suit the needs of NYC and other large urban school districts. We need volunteers, partnerships with universities and manufacturers, and funding to get these initiatives going as soon as possible! For anyone interested in joining us, we can be contacted at

As parents and educators, we have the responsibility to teach our children to be responsible citizens (which includes reducing waste) and to provide them with school facilities and services that they will not be paying for as adults! NYC has an enormous amount of work to do in terms of reducing our waste. We should teach and empower our children by setting the best example in our schools.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.