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 [email protected]

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

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.