Debby Lee Cohen Got Styrofoam out of NYC Schools

Debby Lee Cohen co-founded Cafeteria Culture, and helped end the use of 850,000 styrofoam lunch trays every day in New York City schools. Now, the UL Innovative Education Award for Environmental and STEM Education (ULIE Award) is allowing Cafeteria Culture to take “zero waste” cafeteria practices to schools across the country.

Debby's Impact


Number of styrene foam lunch trays eliminated per day from NYC schools

500 Million

Number of styrofoam trays eliminated per year across the country

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Some people have really, really good ideas—and all they need is a way to keep up the good work. When NAAEE teamed up with UL to fund an environmental-STEM award, they conducted nationwide surveys to learn what nonprofits needed most. What did they find? “Nonprofits need money, of course, but most grants require a proposal for a new program, which can strap them even more,” says Christiane Maertens, Deputy Director of NAAEE.

So the ULIE Award was born: A grant that rewards programs that are already going gangbusters.

Take Debby Lee Cohen’s program, for example. In 2009, Cohen became obsessed with getting rid of styrofoam trays in New York City Schools, where each day 850,000 foam lunch trays were being used once, before getting shipped off to landfills.

Cohen, whose daughter attended a New York public school, worked as a set designer for HBO, and taught design classes at Parson’s The New School. She used her arts and education expertise to start an environmental-STEM program in New York City public schools called “Arts + Action.” The program featured an arts program to create messaging and school awareness about pollution, and a “Cafeteria Rangers” program that showed students how to start their own initiatives to recycle and sort food waste in their cafeterias to reduce pollution. Partner schools were able to reduce cafeteria garbage by 85 percent within weeks, and composted all food waste locally. One year later, thanks to increased awareness and buy-in from schools, collaborative efforts resulted in “Trayless Tuesdays” across all 1,700 NYC schools, eliminating 100 million styrofoam trays.

Based on this success, Cohen partnered with filmmaker and activist Atsuko Quirk, and founded Cafeteria Culture, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating styrofoam from schools. Cohen spearheaded a tray redesign for compostable trays with her Parsons students and Department of Education food directors, and Cafeteria Culture and partner schools joined in advocating to the mayor and other local leaders. In December 2013, through the combined efforts of Cafeteria Culture and other nonprofits, the New York City Council voted unanimously to ban styrene foam from the city, and styrofoam trays were replaced with compostable trays.

“Cafeteria Culture was already doing great work,” says Maertens from NAAEE. “The way that they transformed the largest school system in the country is unprecedented.” Cohen and Cafeteria Culture were chosen as ULIE winners in 2015, giving them funding to create an online “Arts + Action” program, with downloadable training guides and a YouTube video training series, so that schools across the country can replicate the success in New York City.

The “Arts + Action” is a two-part program; the first half features an 8-step “Cafeteria Rangers” training that transforms students into leaders in their own lunch rooms, overseeing composting and recycling in the lunch room, and collecting data about their school’s waste output. The second part is a “Make Change Messaging” curriculum in which students learn about advocacy and launch a messaging campaign with signs and videos to gain buy-in from their school and community.

The result is a hands-on learning tool that incorporates leadership and advocacy along with environmental education. “We train students, K-5, to own their own sorting system in the cafeteria, and they don’t need a teacher or staff; they do it all on their own,” says Cohen. “They learn not just about the ‘how’ but also the ‘why’ to reduce cafeteria waste and how that relates to climate change.”

The student involvement was critical in winning over the ULIE panel of judges, says Maertens, noting that the program also infuses e-STEM learning through art and design. “The kids really drive the whole thing, and the civics piece helps young people understand how they can effect change,” says Maertens. “Students see how important it is to be involved in their community rather than think ‘I can’t do anything about this.’”

Now, thanks to the NAAEE ULIE Award, Cafeteria Culture has hired its first part-time educator dedicated to visiting schools for teacher training and sustainability, and the online program created with the award is already in use in schools in California and Massachusetts. This year, Cafeteria Culture will launch its first international student-led zero waste project with a school in Tokyo. “We have been working all these years toward zero waste, and now the ULIE award is helping us share this,” says Cohen.

Debby's Story

Pilar Tucker Got her preschoolers into the great outdoors

Pilar Tucker revamped her preschool’s curriculum using the NAAEE Guidelines for Excellence for Early Childhood Environmental Education Programs.

Pilar's Impact


Number of preschoolers Pilar takes to the wetlands

We teach respect for all of God's creations.

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Faith Lutheran is a small, faith-based preschool in West Palm Beach, Florida. With about 150 students, it has been teaching preschoolers in West Palm Beach since 1962—but in 2009, teacher Pilar Tucker started to notice something strange about the teaching manual.

“Every month we would have basic themes based on the seasons—in September it was apples, in October it was falling leaves, in January it was snow. But in Florida we don’t have any of those things!” says Tucker. “I was teaching and it was weird telling children that leaves change color, when they look out the window, and no, they don’t.”

At the same time, Tucker was getting her Master’s degree in education, and was required to take an environmental education class that took her to the local Wakodahatchee wetlands. There, she saw great blue herons, purple gallinules, egrets, and woodstorks—she learned about birds and plants she had never heard of. “I had lived here for 20 years and never been to the wetlands; that class opened my eyes,” she says.

A fire was sparked in Tucker, and she began doing environmental research projects with her professor. That’s when she came across NAAEE, and its Guidelines for Excellence for Early Childhood Environmental Education. The guidelines outline research-based best practices, and had been shaped by feedback from hundreds of practitioners and scholars. Pilar wondered, "how many of her preschoolers knew about local animals like the blue herons and the purple gallinules? How would her school hold up against the Guidelines for Excellence?"

Tucker was inspired to set up a committee meeting with teachers, parents, administrators, and board members. The goal was to measure their school against the NAAEE guidelines, and its companion rating scale. The group rated themselves against NAAEE’s 6 Key Guidelines, from Guideline One: Crafting a Philosophy, to Guideline Six: Educator Preparation. “If the goal was environmental excellence—we were far from it!” says Tucker, who noted that their highest score was a 4.3, out of a possible 7.0, for sparking curiosity in children. But the exercise made it clear to everyone in the room that some big changes toward a more local, environmentally-focused curriculum would be relatively easy.

“We teach a lot about God’s creation, but nowhere in our mission did it say anything about that,” Tucker says. The school’s philosophy was “Teaching the love of Jesus, teaching the love of learning.” After performing an audit using NAAEE’s guidelines, the committee crafted a new philosophy statement: “Teaching the love of Jesus, teaching the love of learning, and teaching respect for all of God’s creations.”

After the philosophy was changed, the school did a teacher training program through Project Wild to create a curriculum based on Florida wildlife. Tucker used her photos from her trips to the wetlands to create matching games to teach the names of blue herons and scarlet ibises, and monthly themes were switched from pine trees to palm trees, and from polar bears to alligators. Now the children learn about the ibises—birds that the children see all the time in their communities—and how the birds get food out of the soil with their long beaks.

The next step for Pilar, who went on to become the school’s assistant director, was to address NAAEE's Guideline 5, Spaces and Places, to get the kids outside more. The school created a “mud kitchen” on site for kids to play with sand and water. They arranged fieldtrips to the many local nature centers, where children could visit estuaries and hold sea urchins, or to the local Marine Life Center where they saw rehabilitated sea turtles that had been injured by boats and trash.

Meeting the guidelines is a work in progress, but Tucker’s proudest accomplishment to date is the school’s container garden with lettuce, beans, kale, carrots, green onions, and celery, which went in last year. The children planted the seeds, and now water the plants and check them every day. And, of course, they get to taste their crops when they’re ready. “They are more aware of where it’s coming from—not the grocery store,” says Tucker.

When Faith Lutheran Preschool went through the accreditation process last year, it was applauded for the cognitive, socio-emotional, and spiritual benefits of its curriculum changes through the NAAEE guidelines. “Our team leader just loved our new philosophy and said it was great,” said Tucker. “’Respect for all God’s creation’—now that’s our little catch phrase, so to speak.”

Pilar's Story

Charles Orgbon Founded an environmental nonprofit at age twelve

Charles Orgbon, college senior and CEO of Greening Forward, was chosen as one of NAAEE's 30 Under 30 last year. The annual award is given to young people ages 15-30 who are environmental education leaders in their communities.

Charles's Impact


Amount given to youth-driven environmental projects


Number of environmental groups funded before graduating from college

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People don’t often look to young people to solve big problems, but NAAEE and Charles Orgbon are changing that.

When he was in the fifth grade, Charles Orgbon, like many grade-school kids, had to fulfill a community service requirement. “I wanted an A, and I wanted to do it the easiest way possible, so I stayed after school and the principal gave me gloves and a plastic bag to pick up litter,” says Orgbon, now 21 years old. After picking up candy wrappers and plastic cups in his schoolyard, he went on the web and learned about the costs of littering. Orgbon explains, “I thought to myself, we have to stop this! It was an easy concept for a kid to understand—that litter is bad for a community. Litter was my gateway drug too, because I soon learned about other environmental issues.”

“Most kids have a moment like this,” says Orgbon. “Most kids have an experience moment where they realize that something in their community is not right, but they don’t have an opportunity to follow up on it.” Orgbon started an NGO at the age of 12, and he quickly realized that the environmental movement didn’t engage young people like him as much as they could, so now his organization, Greening Forward, funds youth-led environmental projects. The idea goes hand-in-hand with the NAAEE 30 Under 30 initiative, which selects young applicants from all over North America who are raising their voices and changing policy in their communities—from building community gardens, to fighting for social justice. Winners attended the annual NAAEE conference, where they were put in touch with thought leaders and other professionals in the field.

Charles Orgbon was selected for 30 Under 30, and also served as a keynote speaker at the 2015 conference, because he’s a “shining example” of a young person who got involved in his community, and gives other young people the push to do the same. “He has an amazing story,” says Christiane Maertens, deputy director of NAAEE, but she says that he also gets what environmental education is all about: “Our work is about helping people young and old make informed decisions and take action. If we don’t have the next generation doing that, then we’re not doing our jobs.”

Orgbon’s NGO, Greening Forward, is now the largest youth-driven environmental organization in the country. Greening Forward has given away over $68,000 in grants to youth-driven environmental projects, which have collectively planted 300 trees, and recycled 180 tons of waste. Not bad for Orgbon—who is just about to graduate from college.

"The power that young people bring to environmental causes," Orgbon says, "is that they’re not jaded. I think that young people look at big problems and are less phased by them,” says Orgbon. “In 5th grade I said, ‘I’m going to free the world from litter.’ How naïve that might have been! But what it symbolizes is an innate sense of curiosity, and a willingness to act.”

Orgbon believes that ambitious young people need three things to succeed: a spark to want to make change, three cheerleaders to help them along, and an opportunity. NAAEE helps provide mentors and the opportunities to help young people make change, by inviting them to the conversation with experts and thought leaders. “Conferences like NAAEE’s are where minds come together. When a young person encounters a wicked problem like climate change, he or she can connect with experts who say, ‘This is how you respond, this is what you do next,’” says Orgbon. “So many young people have ideas—they just don’t know how to take them to the next level.”

Orgbon credits the connections he made at the NAAEE conference with helping him grow Greening Forward’s goals and supporting even more youth-inspired, youth-led projects, like one he’s working on now in Georgia, where a 15-year old young woman he has been mentoring is lobbying state lawmakers to introduce a statewide plastic pollution awareness day.

“Young people have a sense of curiosity, a willingness to ask,” he says. “There’s a fearlessness there—I think that’s how we move the needle forward.”

Charles's Story

Shareen Knowlton Helped pass national legislation with NAAEE’s Affiliates

Joining with the NAAEE Affiliate Network, Rhode Island Environmental Education Association (RIEEA) transformed itself from a small, local professional organization into a grassroots advocacy powerhouse.

Shareen's Impact


Number of organizations in national coalition Shareen joined with NAAEE

Today, we have our senators and congressmen calling us.

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Fifteen years ago, RIEEA was a small professional organization that supported environmental education in Rhode Island classrooms by providing practical ways to teach environmental literacy. “We did things like training teachers how to lead mushroom walks, or teach about watersheds,” says Shareen Knowlton, former president of RIEEA. But all of that changed after No Child Left Behind legislation shifted classroom instruction toward standardized testing, and environmental education was largely left behind.

With help from NAAEE, RIEEA used that opportunity to “shift gears,” and reinvent itself as leaders in an advocacy group for environmental education policy. Today, RIEEA works with senators to craft state and national legislation, and is part of a powerful national network advocating for environmental education. “Now we have our senators calling us with questions; we’re invited to the table,” says Knowlton.

At the outset, Knowlton, who is also the Director of Education at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island, knew next to nothing about political advocacy. “Everything I knew about civics came from Schoolhouse Rock, and I was pretty cynical about politics, ” she says. But when RIEEA got a phone call from Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed’s office, saying that he was interested in introducing legislation to get environmental education back into schools, suddenly RIEEA was in a position to impact federal policy. That’s where the expertise and powerful nation-wide network from NAAEE came into play.

“The NAAEE Affiliate network was already in place, so when this chance came along, it became the primary network to push this grassroots movement,” says Sarah Bodor, NAAEE Director of Policy and Affiliate Relations.

Working with the Affiliates Network, Knowlton stepped up to play a leadership role in a nationwide coalition of thought leaders and advocates that would grow to include more than 2,000 organizations, and called themselves the “No Child Left Inside Coalition.” Leveraging the relationship with her senator, Knowlton and RIEEA led monthly action network calls with updates on the campaign, and to-do lists to advance the cause state by state. “The Affiliate Network really rose to the challenge in seizing this opportunity and sticking with it,” says Bodor.

In December 2015, thanks in large part to the efforts of the coalition community, and with leadership from Senator Jack Reed from Rhode Island and John Sarbanes from Maryland, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was passed with funding set aside for environmental education.

Knowlton gives credit to the Affiliate Network for driving the change. “Most of the thousands of educators in this network were experts in environmental education, but they had never thought about what it means to be an advocate for their work,” she says. “Working toward the legislation together gave us a sense of purpose—we realized this could happen in Congress. We realized that it’s not just us that think it matters.”

It took nearly 10 years for the No Child Left Inside Coalition to realize its goal. But in the meantime, a lot of other good things happened along the way. Knowlton and others learned that advocacy has benefits for environmental educators beyond a specific policy goal. Decision makers learned more about environmental education and its benefits for youth and communities. RIEEA and other organizations developed relationships with elected officials and school leaders, raising the profile of the organization and the field of environmental education. “People want to know what they can do, or how they can make a difference, and a huge piece of that is about civic engagement,” says Bodor. “We have a structure in place for engaging in environmental education advocacy, and joining the Affiliates is the first step.”

Now RIEEA has a place at the table in legislative conversations in their state. “When the Department of Education was talking about next generation science standards, we got invited to the leadership team,” Knowlton says.

“The conversations we had, and relationships we built when advocating for the No Child Left Inside legislation have had lasting, positive effects and have significantly elevated our role in systemic education reform. And if we can be effective in this kind of effort, anyone can. We’ve come a long way from mushroom walks.”

Shareen's Story


For more than four decades, NAAEE has promoted excellence in environmental education throughout North America and the world. We are dedicated to strengthening the field of environmental education and increasing the visibility and efficacy of the profession.

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