Cafeteria Culture (CafCu)


Mission Statement

Cafeteria Culture is an environmental education organization that works creatively with youth to achieve equitable zero waste, climate-smart school communities, and a plastic free biosphere. Our youth programs merge citizen science and civic action with media production and the arts. Students in our programs, overwhelmingly from lower income communities of color, provide an urgently needed voice to the environmental movement by taking on leadership and advocacy roles and bridging the interconnected issues of waste, environmental justice and the climate crisis.
Cafeteria Culture (CafCu), founded in 2009 as Styrofoam Out of Schools, catalyzed the complete elimination of plastic styrofoam trays from all NYC public schools and nine other large U.S. school districts, resulting in half a billion styrofoam trays diverted from landfills, incinerators and student meals annually. We achieved this goal by working in partnership with students, parents and school food directors, a model that we continue to embrace.
Our award winning documentary, Microplastic Madness (2019), officially selected into over 20 film festivals, is sparking a national youth-led impact campaign for a plastic free future. With schools as hubs for change, we are working towards our next big goal of ridding all school cafeterias of the remaining single-use plastics.


CafCu partners with schools and classroom teachers to pilot interdisciplinary education and provide students with real world opportunities to practice 21st Century Learning skills, including leadership, critical thinking, problem solving and media production. Our team continuously seeks out new challenges and new ways to engage students on the most current and complex issues of the moment.
We are committed to sharing lesson plans, videos and other resources with all schools for free through our website, YouTube and Vimeo channels, professional development training, and most recently as part of school hosted screenings of our movie, Microplastic Madness.
Video production frames all of our programs. We regularly bring camcorders into the classrooms for students to document the program, learn video production basics, and then to create their own vlogs and videos. Our YouTube channel, Cafcu Media, which highlights our students, has 44K subscribers and 27 million views!
Microplastic Madness is the winner of four prestigious film festival awards (2019-20):
  • Best Documentary - Amateur Category (over 40 minutes), Raw Science Film Festival
  • Best Feature Documentary Film - Audience Choice, Providence Children’s Film Festival
  • Best Documentary Feature Award - Youth Jury, Children’s Film Festival Seattle
  • Best Solution Award, Cinema Verde Environmental Film and Art Festival
  • Peggy Charred Award for Excellence, Boston International Kids Film Festival
CafCu was one of only five North American organizations to receive an inaugural UL Innovative Education Award (2015) for advancing environmental STEM education, sustainable communities, and youth empowerment. CafCu received an Environmental Quality Award from the US EPA Region 2 in 2013 and a competitive US EPA Region 2 Trash Free Waters grant to teach and document our “Community Arts+Media for Trash Free Waters” program.
CafCu Executive Director, Debby Lee Cohen, received a Proclamation from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer (2018) for her zero waste efforts.

Program Details

PLASTIC FREE WATERS - school programs for grades 3-8
We began piloting Plastic Free Waters curriculum in 2014 to provide students with opportunities to take their zero waste leadership roles out into the community and to City Hall. Students conduct street and beach litter surveys, interview neighbors, map out the full life cycles of plastics, lead campaigns, and use their own data and personal stories to inform policy. They also create accessible, urban-youth videos and narratives to accelerate local change for global impact. This program led to our first feature documentary, Microplastic Madness!
MICROPLASTIC MADNESS - the movie, toolkit and impact campaign for a plastic free future
To scale up our Plastic Free education and outreach, we produced our first feature documentary, Microplastic Madness (2019), a springboard for youth action! The movie tells the story of 56 fifth graders from our program in Red Hook, Brooklyn -living on the frontline of the climate crisis - whose action on plastic pollution morphs into extraordinary leadership. With stop-motion animation, expert interviews, and heartfelt youth commentary, this inspiring narrative conveys an urgent, accessible message of informed action and hope.
The movie, the free classroom toolkit (in-progress), and Impact Campaign link youth activism to three of the most critical issues of our time: plastic pollution, the climate crisis and environmental justice. The movie is an opportunity to accelerate youth-led action plastic free with schools as hubs for change. (watch the trailer here:
The CafCu team in partnership with New York City (NYC) DOE Office of Food and Nutrition (OFNS), and the Office of Sustainability, has been planning for the first NY City-wide Plastic-Free Lunch Day (PFLD), a day with NO single-use plastic served at lunch in all public school cafeterias across the City. The initiative was inspired by the action of 5th graders portrayed in our movie, Microplastic Madness, who led the first PFLD in a New York City public school.
CafCu’s proposed citywide PFLD initiative was scheduled to take place on Friday, May 15, 2020, however, due to the pandemic it has been postponed,. We are currently in discussion with School Food Directors for possibilities of leading the initiative next school year within the parameters of new protocols for serving school meals. In preparation for the implementation of the city-wide PFLD, Cafcu helped to finalize the optimal plastic-free menu to be served on PFLD and piloted messaging for PFLD in partnership with students, parents, school aides, and custodial staff. Our team also filmed PFLD kitchen operations with plans to produce an instructional video for School food managers and kitchen staff for the city-wide PFLD.
CAFCU YOUTH ADVOCATES - after school program
CafCu Youth Advocates, our newest program, expands youth leadership opportunities for plastic-free and climate justice action outside of the school. The CafCu team and college age volunteers mentor middle and high school age youth, primarily alumni of Cafeteria Culture’s school programs. Building upon their previous experiences as change-makers and advocates, the Youth Advocates speak on panels, lead outreach and engagement campaigns, and strive to promote a deeper understanding of the root causes of plastic marine pollution and its intrinsic connection to climate change and environmental justice issues.
See the video of CafCu Youth Advocate, Rebeca Sabnam, 16 year-old New York City high school junior, who delivered a powerful speech at the Youth Climate strike (September 20, 2019) on the intersection of the Climate Crisis and Human Rights, attended by 250,000 people.
Cafeteria Culture has been an NYC innovator of school classroom and in-cafeteria zero waste education and methodologies with the goal to reduce all waste and recyclables, optimize sorting, and inspire behavior change by teaching the “why” with the “how.” Our award winning “Cafeteria Ranger” service learning programs and “Garbology 101 have been taught by our team to over 12,000 students in 20+ NYC schools, primarily in low income communities of color. Students take on leadership roles during the lunch period, conduct waste audits and use their data to Inform policy, design awareness campaigns, and connect our consumption and garbage to environmental justice and climate change. In 2015, we scaled up this program by sharing it for free as the online, multimedia SORT2SAVE KIT.

Primary Issue
Secondary Issue
Climate Change
c/o Lower Eastside Girls Club, 402 East 8th Street
New York, New York 10009
United States
Social Media Links


Supporting Members