Urban School Food Alliance and Cafeteria Culture Announce Plastic Free Lunch Day USA Partnership

For immediate release

WASHINGTON, Oct. 3, 2022 – On November 2, 2022, Cafeteria Culture and the Urban School Food Alliance join forces to present the first ever Plastic Free Lunch Day (PFLD) USA, a nationwide initiative to reduce plastic foodware and packaging in school cafeterias across the country. All schools are invited to join this nationwide day of awareness and student-led action.

The Plastic Free Lunch concept was developed by Cafeteria Culture, an environmental education nonprofit, and a group of NYC fifth graders who, after studying plastic pollution for two years, discovered that their lunches contained a shocking amount of single-use plastic foodware and packaging. In response, the students designed and carried out a single plastic free lunch day that reduced total school lunch waste by 99% and eliminated 558 plastic waste items.

As the fifth graders discovered, their meals (from school and home) were packed with plastic utensils, straws, plates and trays, pre-packaged food cups, juice pouches, chip bags and more! School cafeterias nationwide serve 7.35 billion meals a year, with as many as 8 to 10 pieces of single-use plastic in a single meal.

That action now gains additional support from the Urban School Food Alliance, a nonprofit that represents 18 of the largest school districts in the country. Collectively, school districts in the Alliance serve more than 4.2 million children with approximately $925 million in purchasing power for food and food supplies.

“The Urban School Food Alliance was founded by districts who shared a vision of serving school meals that were healthy to both students and the environment,” said Dr. Katie Wilson, Executive Director of the Urban School Food Alliance. “Since 2012, our members have eliminated billions of polystyrene trays from landfills by introducing a compostable plate, issued standards for responsible antibiotic use in poultry products, and continue to be leaders in creating sustainable foodservice practices. Plastic Free Lunch Day is a celebration of this mission and the collective impact of schools and students nationwide coming together to create positive change.”

The exponential rise in school lunch plastic is often most keenly felt in urban areas, where the non-biodegradable highly-flammable plastics pile up at waste transfer stations, landfills and recycling centers tasked with recycling the unrecyclable, or are used to fuel incinerators that release toxic air emissions to nearby, often marginalized, communities. When plastics overflow these communities, they are exported to countries of the Global South such as Indonesia where they also pile up, are openly burned, and dumped into waterways that enter the ocean. The upstream solution to this global problem is to turn off the tap–reduce plastic production–the message behind PFLD USA.

“We are thrilled to join the Urban School Food Alliance, Cafeteria Culture, and students at over 750 schools across the country in taking climate action to the cafeteria,” said Chris Tricarico, Senior Executive Director of NYC DOE’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services. “Students at P.S. 15 Patrick F. Daly Magnet School for the Arts, right here in Brooklyn, started Plastic Free Lunch Day because they saw that plastics were harming our environment and that the cafeteria could be a catalyst for meaningful change. It brings us great pride and joy to see our students inspire a national movement to create a more sustainable future.”

PFLD is a school community response to the massive global plastic pollution problem. The world produces over 400 million metric tons of plastic each year, most of which is throw-away single-use plastics, like the cafeteria plastics, that end up in landfills, are burned or littered, blown or washed into rivers and oceans. As described in Cafeteria Culture’s award-winning student-led movie, Microplastic Madness, plastics survive for generations but quickly become brittle, fragmenting into small pieces called microplastics and then into tiny pieces called nanoplastics. These long-lived tiny plastic pieces have become airborne and taken flight across the globe. Large and small pieces alike have caused a near-permanent contamination of soil, air, and water.

“You can only see so many birds dying from eating plastic, or trying to feed plastic bits to their nestlings, until you say, this is completely unacceptable. We simply have to stop making and using single-use plastics.” said Dana Ripper, Wildlife Ecologist, Director, Missouri River Bird Observatory. “PFLD USA is a great place to start. Plastic is harmful to our kids as well as the planet. So it is absolutely critical to reduce the enormous amount of plastic currently used in schools.”

Plastic is a climate problem. Because plastics are made from fossil fuels, they lock in fossil fuel use and carbon emissions. At each stage of its long life (fossil fuel extraction and refining; production; transport and distribution; consumer sale and transport; and disposal in landfill, incineration, downcycling and post-consumer content manufacturing), plastic emits CO2 and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases. Plastic extraction, refining and production, like plastic waste, disproportionately burdens lower income communities and communities of color–communities in which these heavily-polluting industrial facilities are typically located.

PFLD USA is designed to be implemented with students as partners. It is a hands-on learning and action opportunity that engages students and their school communities in solving intersectional issues around sustainability, equity, plastic pollution, and climate.

“It is high time to reduce climate destroying, people polluting single-use plastics and microplastics.
Plastic Free Lunch Day USA is a student-led game changer for schools everywhere” said Debby Lee Cohen, Cafeteria Culture Executive Director and Founder. ”We are extremely proud of our fifth grade students from Brooklyn PS 15 who started the first PFLD, helping others to envision a plastic-free school cafeteria. Their advocacy led to a NYC-wide PFLD and now this groundbreaking national plastic-free action! One day of action inspires more actions!

PFLD USA is also an urgently-needed student health intervention. Plastic foodware and packaging contains thousands of toxic chemicals such as PFAS that readily migrate from plastic into food and beverage. Most of these persistent lipophilic plastic chemicals wreak havoc with students’ developing neurologic, immune, reproductive, and endocrine (hormone) systems. And as classified obesogens, they set the stage for childhood obesity.

​“Besides the known effects of plastics on our planet, children are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of chemicals used in plastic, particularly because of the crucial role of hormones in our bodies for so many biological functions. That’s why this Plastic Free Lunch Day is so important,” said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, MD, MPP, the Jim G. Hendrick MD Professor, Director of the Division of Environmental Pediatrics and Vice Chair for Research in the Department of Pediatrics at NYU School of Medicine.

Yet, despite the many environmental and human health threats from plastic, the plastic industry has doubled production since 2000 and is on target to double again by 2040. PFLD USA provides an immediate, tangible and repeatable way for students to say no to plastic pollution and to plastic’s climate threat, to say turn off the tap.

Cafeteria Culture’s student-led, award-winning movie Microplastic Madness is available for free screenings by students and schools who take part in PFLD USA. The trailer can be viewed at www.Microplastic Madness.org. More information about PFLD USA is available on the Cafeteria Culture website: PlasticFreeLunch.org. Students, teachers, and schools everywhere are invited to take part in this game-changing day of action.

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