How K-12 operators find strength in partnerships

dining woman students

In early 2014, Chicago Public Schools’ Department of Nutrition Support Services faced a significant challenge: the prospect that its already cash-strapped budget might reach a breaking point if the City Council passed a ban on polystyrene products. That ban would have required the school system to switch its cafeteria trays to a version that was more expensive by about 11 cents—which, in a school district serving 400,000 students, adds up quickly. “For us, a penny is a million dollars,” says Leslie Fowler, director of Nutrition Support Services. “And every million dollars is 12 teachers.” It seemed an impossible obstacle.

But CPS was able to make the switch anyway, thanks to a new purchasing partnership it had entered into called the Urban School Food Alliance, or USFA. Combining the buying powers of six of the nation’s largest school districts—Chicago, New York City, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami-Dade and Orange County, Fla.—the Alliance negotiated rates for environmentally friendly trays down to five cents each, just a single-cent increase over polystyrene.

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