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

Related NAAEE Resources

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.


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