'No Antibiotics Ever' for Chicken Served in 6 Largest U.S. School Districts

New standards will put meat raised without drugs on the trays of nearly 3 million students.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Dec 9, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Can you supply hundreds of thousands of schoolkids with their daily dose of chicken nuggets and fight a growing public health menace at the same time? Apparently, you can.

Today the Urban School Food Alliance announced plans to make antibiotic-free chicken the new norm in the lunchrooms of the six largest public school districts in the country.

This is big news: All told, these districts serve nearly 3 million kids every day, and you know chicken-as-finger-food is surely one of the most popular items on the menu. Not only that, but by marshaling their collective purchasing power—which amounts to more than half a billion dollars a year on food and supplies—the coalition is establishing a huge institutional market for antibiotic-free chicken that smaller districts nationwide may soon be able to take advantage of as well.

“The standards we’re asking from the manufacturers go above and beyond the quality of the chicken we normally purchase at local supermarkets. This move by the alliance shows that school food directors across the country truly care about the health and wellness of students,” Eric Goldstein, USFA's chairman, said in a statement. Goldstein is also the CEO of school support services for the New York City Department of Education, which makes up the alliance along with the school districts of Los Angeles; Chicago; Miami-Dade, Fla.; Dallas; and Orlando, Fla.

The new chicken standards, which were developed with the help of the Natural Resources Defense Council, not only call for “no antibiotics ever” but also require birds to be raised humanely, in accordance with the National Chicken Council’s Animal Welfare Guidelines, and to be fed an all-vegetarian diet with no animal by-products in the feed.

Beyond the pragmatic issue of creating an outsize market for antibiotic-free chicken, it's particularly poignant that what we’re talking about here is lunches for kids. After all, it’s their future that we’re mucking up with what’s become an epidemic of Big Ag’s overreliance on antibiotics.

Even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned of “potentially catastrophic consequences of inaction” in the face of the alarming spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, the Food and Drug Administration has utterly failed to come up with new regulations that experts believe are capable of adequately curbing the antibiotic free-for-all on factory farms.

Some 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used on animals—and these drugs aren’t even being utilized to treat sick animals. Instead, they’ve been routinely mixed with feed to prevent illness (in often overcrowded conditions) and to promote growth. What does all that antibiotic abuse add up to? Resistance. According to the CDC, 2 million Americans are already estimated to suffer an antibiotic-resistant infection each year, with 23,000 dying.

Antibiotic-free chicken isn’t the only new thing the USFA is looking to serve up in the coming year. In 2015, the alliance’s members plan to trade out the 270 million landfill-choking polystyrene serving trays they use every year, replacing them with compostable trays made from sugarcane. The group is investigating a switch to compostable utensils as well. While such innovation might be cost-prohibitive for one school district alone—even one as large as, say, Chicago’s, the largest in the nation—it becomes feasible when you combine the purchasing power of six huge school districts, which is the whole reason the alliance was formed back in 2012.

“We pay about 4 cents for a foam tray, and compostable trays are about 15 cents—but volume is always the game changer,” Leslie Fowler, the director of nutrition support services for the Chicago school system, told The New York Times last year. “We want to set the tone for the marketplace, rather than having the marketplace tell us what’s available.”