Major US Cities Not "Chickening" Out on Good School Food

Today, six of the largest cities in the United States — New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas and Orlando — announced they will seek to buy only antibiotic-free chicken for the nearly three million kids they serve in their public schools every day.

This is a big deal.

Why? Because purchasing poultry and meat raised without improper antibiotics is a critical piece of ensuring the safety of our children.

Because in making this announcement — ahead of any federal or state mandates to do so — these six large cities are pushing the entire food industry to move away from animals raised with excessive antibiotic use.

Because more than two-thirds of the students in these school districts are economically disadvantaged and school meals often represent more than half of the food they consume each day.

The six cities are part of a newly formed coalition called the “Urban School Food Alliance.” The overall goal of the Alliance, as I’ve written before, is to leverage their joint food purchasing power — $550 million per year — to not only help get better food for kids in lunch rooms, but also to help drive the market for affordable, healthy and sustainable food for all schools across the country.

The New York City school system alone serves 860,000 meals per day, the largest institutional provider of meals in the nation after the Department of Defense. So when NYC and these other districts speak, food suppliers around the country listen.

My colleague Margaret Brown and I were proud to stand with Urban School Food Alliance officials today in Los Angeles as they announced the first-ever antibiotic-free standard for the six school districts. (The standard was developed by NRDC and School Food FOCUS/The Pew Charitable Trusts.)

We are particularly excited about this first national move by the cities because NRDC views the fight against antibiotic resistance as a top public health priority.

According to the CDC, antibiotic resistance is “one of the world’s most pressing health problems.” The CDC has also said “much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe.”

The vast majority of antibiotics in this country are used in animal agriculture — and often not to treat sick animals but to speed up animal growth and to compensate for unsanitary conditions common at industrial farms. This overuse in meat and poultry production contributes to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which travel off of farms and into our communities — not just on the meat itself, but also in our soil, air, and water.

Leading public health and medical organizations including the World Health Organization have warned that the widespread overuse and misuse of antibiotics in food animals contributes to the dangerous rise of antibiotic resistance in humans.

Because of this crisis, NRDC has sued the US Food & Drug Administration to properly regulate antibiotic use in livestock. But in July of this year, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan overturned NRDC’s lower court victory against the agency — ruling that the FDA does not have to consider eliminating the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics despite the fact that the agency itself determined almost 40 years ago that these uses were not safe to human health. NRDC is appealing this ruling.

Especially in light of this temporary legal setback, and continued federal foot-dragging on this issue, NRDC applauds the Urban School Food Alliances’ landmark action today on antibiotic free chicken.

We also applaud Los Angeles schools on making a commitment today to not only buy antibiotic-free chicken, but also to begin incorporating organic and other environmentally preferable food into their cafeterias. See my colleague Margaret’s blog on this exciting development.

You can also learn more about the Urban School Food Alliance here, and more about antibiotic-free meat and poultry here.

All in all, a big day for improved school food and for fighting antibiotic resistance.

We look forward to hatching — sorry couldn’t resist! — other good food initiatives with these innovative school districts.

About the Authors

Mark Izeman

Director, New York program and Senior Attorney

Join Us