In 2009 I was teaching at Parsons School
of Design and my daughter was seven years old in public school and she came
home one day and said to me “Mom I’m not eating school lunch anymore because of
my styrofoam tray.” I had no idea at that time that in New York City schools we
were using close to a million foam trays per day made out of toxic and polluting
styrene. And they were going to landfills and incinerators, and so Cafeteria
Culture was founded as ‘styrofoam out of schools’. Indirectly Atsuko and I both
spent many days of our lives with our children playing in this park here. We were
working on these same issues and then as soon as we met I thought this is amazing,
like, we should work together. One day I just went to my son’s school and just
saw the cafeteria how it operates and then that shocked me, how much mess that
they’re making and nobody cared, and I just went to the principal. This is not
acceptable for not only as a Japanese person, but it is not acceptable for
anybody. So then I started going into the cafeteria every day bringing in Japanese
style. Kids actually taking care of their garbage and sorting and cleaning up.
That’s all how it started with the Cafeteria Ranger program.
That was the model for the Cafeteria Ranger program was a Japanese model. I
wanted to show the Japanese school lunch to New York City school food directors.
So that’s why I went to Japan and filmed the video, which has 20 million
views right now. You can teach kids how to sort why it’s important, but the most
important thing that I saw missing was the respect. So the respect and gratitude
became a thread through our Cafeteria Ranger program. One day we had this idea, well … how about we just build these giant data puppets so people could see what
amounts of foam trays look like. It would be incredible if we could take
that installation, as data, actually out to the city streets to engage people on
the issue. That really led to the 2013 vote of passing legislation to ban
polystyrene in all of New York City. And we see that trend happening in other
cities across the U.S. Most people in New York have no idea actually where our
garbage goes, and our students are actually collecting data that New York
City doesn’t even have. We don’t have data where litter hotspots are, how much
litter is on the beach. Data is important because it informs policy. If you are
telling a story you have to have evidence. So 23 bags became one bag. That was the start in the cafeteria. So the math of
collecting data, the citizen science, the technology, with the media. Cafeteria
Culture has embraced environmental STEM education because we are a school system of 1.1 million students. It means whatever change we make, we actually have the opportunity to influence schools across the U.S. (Phone ringing) Hi! Actually we’re excited to share that Cafeteria Culture was selected and you will be awarded $50,000. That’s incredible! One week before we found out that we won this amazing UL Innovative Education Award I was
diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. The first thing I thought was we cannot tell
anybody because maybe we’ll lose the opportunity to get the award. Like what
would funders think if they know that an executive director of an organization had
stage 3 cancer. But in actuality the urgency of the work
was amplified, and that was a positive thing for the whole organization not
just for me personally. I still remember before the award was announced we were
walking from the school, PS 34, and she said if we get something it’s gonna be a
get-well card for us. And it became a get-well card for us! In the last three
years since I won the award, yeah, enormous changes for us besides the
financial security which has been huge to gain the respect that we needed as a
small innovating organization from our government partners. They know that we’ve
been recognized specifically for our environmental education program in the
E-STEM work that New York City is also looking for new ways to engage
students on, and that we can be looked at as leaders,
thanks to that award …and I’m so grateful for UL that actually continuing this
work. We’re still alive! (Laughing)