MANHATTAN — "Humanely" raised, antibiotic-free chicken is on the way to New York City's public schools.
Cafeterias will begin phasing in the healthier chicken for lunches as early as the spring of 2016, after seeking new contract proposals from chicken purveyors this spring, Department of Education officials said.
“This is an important step in our continuing effort to deliver healthy and delicious food to our students," said Eric Goldstein, CEO of the city's Office of School Support Services. "We look forward to working with our partners to meet the goal of antibiotic-free chicken in our lunchrooms."
Industrial farms often give antibiotics to animals not because they are sick but as a substitute for healthier living conditions and to make them grow faster.
But a broad chorus of medical and public health groups, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have been warning that the overuse of the practice results in drug-resistant bacteria that can threaten human health whether or not people eat the antibiotic-fed animals, as the antibiotic-resistant bacteria travel off of farms and into our soil, air and water.
Chicken is presently the most common item on the menu for the 626,000 daily lunches served in city schools, with about 15 million pounds of the poultry cooked last year, according to DOE figures. The school system spent $27 million on chicken products in the most recent fiscal year.
New York City is not making the switch to antibiotic-free chicken alone. It's joining the nation's other largest school districts that are part of the Urban School Food Alliance — Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas and Orlando — in the hopes that the combined purchasing power of the alliance will help drive down the price of the costlier antibiotic-free chicken. That's what happened when these districts joined together to purchase compostable trays, which are set to be in all city schools by next year.
Under the Urban School Food Alliance's procurement agreement, which was inked in December with the help of the Natural Resources Defense Council, all chicken served in schools must be fed an all-vegetarian diet with feed that has no animal byproducts and "no antibiotics ever." They must be raised "humanely" as outlined in the National Chicken Council Animal Welfare Guidelines, which means they must be "treated with respect throughout their lives" and "should be cared for in ways that prevent or minimize fear, pain, stress and suffering."
If a company can't immediately supply all of its chicken to schools with the "no antibiotics ever" seal, it must provide a written plan as to when it will meet the standard.
The DOE did not yet have an estimate for how much more the antibiotic-free chicken would cost but said the plan would be "economically efficient" because of the joint buying power of the alliance, officials said.
Antibiotic-free meat accounts for less than 5 percent of total meat sales but is a rapidly growing market, according to an NRDC report.
Right now, for someone buying a whole chicken through Fresh Direct, an antibiotic-free one would cost between $2.99 and $4.29 a pound while a Grade A chicken that is not advertised as antibiotic-free would cost between $1.99 and $2.29 a pound.
The move by schools will likely pressure the nation's biggest poultry producers to change their practices and have a trickle-down effect on all consumers, many advocates believe.
Reana Kovalcik, of the nonprofit Wellness in the Schools, applauded the schools' move toward antibiotic-free chicken and believes it could influence the entire poultry industry by boosting demand and reducing prices.
"We don't want our meat pumped full of anything," she said, adding that she hopes the move will also bring more pieces of real chicken to schools rather than chicken patties. "We would like there to be no more mystery meat. Would we like it to be free range, organic and have a dossier for every chicken? Of course, but this is a big first step and it drives down the price for everyone."
"This is a health and economic issue," she added.