May 2020 Alumni Spotlight
May Alumni Spotlight with Stephen O’Brien, MPA ’06
We speak to the Director of Strategic Partnerships and Policy at the NYC Department of Education Office of School Food, Stephen O’Brien about making sure communities are fed during the COVID-19 pandemic, his sense of civic duty, and more.
Can you tell us when you first realized that you had a sense of civic duty? How do you use that as a government employee to effect positive changes both small and large?
Both of my parents were educators and raised us to be socially conscious and aware of other needs and to appreciate what we had as a family. I realized shortly after starting my career in child nutrition how important my role as a civil servant was to the students I served each day. The most rewarding part of my job, to this day 29 years later, is standing on a serving line and seeing the smiling faces of our students as they get a meal. As time went on I realized that I was able to influence food policy through practice – like rolling out salad bars to all elementary schools in the borough of Manhattan when I was a director there. That became an initiative the mayor adopted as a way to reduce long-term obesity.
Using my current role as the Director of Strategic Partnerships and Policy, in the Office of Food and Nutrition Services at the Department of Education, I work with my colleagues to lift up the experience for our 1.1 million students. For example, on a small scale we listen to our parent and student community – which is a must. If we listen, we hear concerns that will affect the youngest generation well into the future. One example was listening to a small group of students and parents who were concerned about the use of polystyrene in our program. We met several times to find alternative solutions that were cost effective and eventually piloted a Trayless Tuesday program where we served our menu on paper boats instead of a polystyrene tray. We tested this at the one school and then rolled it out for all school citywide. This change heightened awareness and lead to these parents creating a nonprofit called Cafeteria Culture which worked with our office to make step changes like Trayless Tuesday, eventually leading us towards the adoption of a round compostable plate and the elimination of all polystyrene well before any bans were legislated.
This lead to a large scale change, as if NYC was not enough, when we created a nonprofit called the Urban School Food Alliance, to bring that local parent driven idea to scale for nation. We developed a round compostable plate that combined the usage of 6 of the largest school districts in the country to drive the price of the compostable plate down so that we could offer this instead of the traditional polystyrene tray. Originally a compostable pate cost about 12 cents each while our polystyrene tray or paper boat cost about 4 cents. Together we created a round compostable plate which originally cost about 5 cents. The implementation of these round plates created a new market and stimulated the entire industry to ramp up for schools – and it showed that we were not interested in using polystyrene moving forward. This work lead to several cities banning polystyrene and eventually adopting similar approaches to what we had achieved in NYC starting with the launch of Trayless Tuesday a grass roots idea in 2009. Large scale change takes perseverance and patience. As you can see from this example it took almost 10 years to make change across the country.
Tell us about your role as Director of Strategic Partnerships and Policy at the Office of Food and Nutrition in the NYC Department of Education. What are some accomplishments you’ve overseen?
We are most proud of creating a safe and trusting space for our parent, advocate, culinary, academic, educational, policy, and environmental partners to come together and help support each other’s work. A little over a year ago we brought together about 50 of our partners to begin meeting on a quarterly basis focusing on three work groups: Menu, Policy and Communications. This has led to improved content on our website, clear communication of program offered by the Office of Food and Nutrition Services. Successful policy discussions to better support local food purchasing initiatives, sustainability issues, and nutrition education in schools. [There were many productive and] transparent conversations about the items and recipes developed and used to create our menus so the highest possible quality is always at the top of our menu development.
What new challenges are you facing right now in the midst of the pandemic?
The most challenging aspect right now is making sure our communities are aware of meal availability so no New Yorker is food insecure. We see and increase in the number of meals served each day as more New Yorkers become food insecure. Anyone in need of food can visit one of our 400+ food hub school sites throughout the city, to pick up 3 meals a day. The meal hub sites operate from 7:30 am to 11:30 am for children and families, and from 11:30 to 1:30 pm for adults, No registration or ID required. Food security is a top priority during this pandemic. We are proud to be supporting our fellow New Yorkers through this challenging time.
To find a site please go to https://www.schools.nyc.gov/school-life/food/free-meals