Listen Along with HSC: Chicken, Compostable Trays and School Lunch in France

January 22, 2015

In this episode, Laura Stanley chats with Dora Rivas of Dallas Public Schools and Stephen O’Brien of New York City Public Schools. Both represent the Urban School Food Alliance, a group that brings together six of the nation’s largest school food programs to use their collective buying power for positive change.

Here at HSC, we love a good conversation about school food. In part, that’s because it’s about so much more than it seems: The topic of school food connects to issues as wide-ranging as health disparities, transportation systems, farming practices and our values as a society.

Now, we have a new place to indulge our love for a lunchroom chat: the Inside School Food radio program. The show is hosted by Laura Stanley, a food journalist, school food advocate and longtime friend of HSC. It’s a treat to follow along as she delves into the details of school food with a diverse group of interesting and engaged guests. The episodes are brief, entertaining and informative. We fully recommend it! You can listen live (Mondays at 11 a.m. EST) or download the episodes and listen later. We’ll be sharing our thoughts and observations on a few episodes here on HSC’s blog.

Today, we listen along to Episode 22: The Urban School Food Alliance travels to France. Vive la révolution?

While our recent listen to Inside School Food radio took a close look at one issue in one state (farm to school in Georgia), this episode zooms way out for a fascinating and fast-paced discussion that highlights just how many big issues are packed into the world of school food.

In this episode, Laura Stanley chats with Dora Rivas of Dallas Public Schools and Stephen O’Brien of New York City Public Schools. Both represent the Urban School Food Alliance, a group that brings together six of the nation’s largest school food programs (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Orlando and Dallas) to use their collective buying power for positive change. In particular, they focus on bringing down costs while improving quality and improving their environmental impact. Much of their work related to quality and environment is also very relevant for health. The alliance wields tremendous buying power: Together, its members serve a total of about 469 million meals a year.

We loved the wide array of issues they took on in one quick episode, especially as these issues connect closely to our work here at HSC:

Compostable plate-trays. For many years, HSC has worked to encourage Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to move away from Styrofoam trays and toward a more eco-friendly option. Cost was a huge barrier, though. Now through the alliance, CPS and the other five districts will be debuting an affordable compostable tray in the new school year. (You can read more about the CPS experience here on HSC’s blog.) Rivas and O’Brien share their take on the details involved, from the move away from institutional rectangle trays toward round plate-like trays, the challenge of balancing milk on a compostable plate, local dialogues around commercial composting and waste disposal and the fact that “students still do not want their foods to touch each other.”

Chicken raised without antibiotics. The alliance is taking a different approach to moving the marketplace when it comes to chicken raised without antibiotics. After an extensive dialogue with manufacturers and nonprofit leaders, they’ve developed a standard that all six districts will adopt. To sell to these districts, manufacturers will need to meet this standard. It’s a different approach to making change, O’Brien explains, “so we can all be working together to shift the industry away from the use of antibiotics.” The standard is designed to roll out increasingly strong requirements over the course of several years to move the industry at a meaningful and feasible pace. At HSC, we’ve written extensively about our advocacy around this issue, especially the effort to serve chicken raised without antibiotics for lunch in Chicago Public Schools. You can check out several of our posts here and here.

International perspective on school food. Rivas and O’Brien recently returned from France, where they were hosted by the French Department of Agriculture and learned about a new national “tasting curriculum” as part of an effort to ensure the next generation carries on the appreciation for food that is so central to French culture. They describe students participating in a robust tasting lesson that culminates in taking a bite of a croissant, and another in which students identify and describe fresh herbs. They share lessons they took from their visit to a school cafeteria and reflections on what the Alliance may be able to share with their French counterparts, especially related to school breakfast. It’s a discussion close to our heart here at HSC. As we support the development of school food programs that address the specific challenges and opportunities in our own communities, we believe in looking internationally for a broad perspective on school food, from the role it plays in a culture to the logistics of how it’s prepared and presented. Back in 2007, we visited France as part of the International Exchange Forum on Children, Obesity, Food Choice and the Environment. The blogs we wrote – you can check them out here and here – still come up as a comparison point to the issues we’re discussing in the U.S. More recently, we published several posts about the differences and similarities of school food in New Zealand.

We could go on! But instead we’ll leave you with a few words from O’Brien on an issue that came up in connection to many of the issues above: the time available to students for eating lunch. Rivas pointed out that as schools serve more fresh produce, students need a little more time to eat.

“We’re giving books, we’re giving transportation, we’re giving the best education we can possibly provide. But if you don’t give them time to actually taste the food, savor the food, enjoy the food and learn how to eat the food, you’re going to see the increase of smoothies and protein drinks and all of this stuff – and all of a sudden we’re not going to know what we’re eating or how we’re eating or why we’re eating other than energy or calories.”

It’s a lively discussion that illustrates just how far-reaching the topic of school food really is. You can listen to the full episode here. Check it out and let us know what you think!