Honoring Debby Lee Cohen

Captain Planet Foundation is sad to learn of the passing of Debby Lee Cohen. CPF was one of the first funders of Cafeteria Culture (also known as CafCu) and Debby was indeed a force to be reckoned with.  At the urging of her daughter, she removed Styrofoam lunch trays from the NYC Public School system – and then from 18 other cities.

In September of 2019, she partnered with Captain Planet Foundation again and brought a huge group of CafCu students to the Peace Boat in NYC Harbor for a mini- Ocean Heroes Bootcamp during UN Climate Week.

Rest in Power, Debby.

Cafeteria Culture’s Statement

Debby Lee founded Cafeteria Culture as a concerned parent of public school students. After her younger daughter announced that she didn’t want to eat school food anymore because styrofoam trays were “killing the polar bears,” Debby Lee started working to eliminate styrofoam from New York City Public School cafeterias. Always a uniter but never afraid to push boundaries, Debby Lee advocated with constant pressure on decision-makers to eliminate foam trays in school cafeterias, and didn’t stop until her mission was accomplished. This grassroots victory eliminated over half a billion plastic foam trays per year from student meals, landfills, and incinerators in New York City and now 18 other cities across the U.S.

Debby Lee’s public school work to drive change forward has a tremendous and lasting impact on our world far beyond the city. Her dream to achieve equitable zero waste has fueled the continued work of Cafeteria Culture and paved the way for New York City’s 2019 and New York State’s 2022 foam bans. We owe much to Debby Lee’s sheer determination to tackle this problem that at the outset, most people thought was impossible to accomplish.

Debby Lee centered our students throughout these victories. Whether she was teaching them to build giant foam monster puppets or to create their own stop-motion animation projects, she shared her creative gifts to support students in telling their own stories. These principles continue to guide our teaching today to support Cafeteria Culture students as they continue to advocate for environmental justice and possibility.

We are gratified to have been able to walk this road and do this challenging but rewarding work with Debby Lee and proud of all we have accomplished with her. Our team mourns her passing as we celebrate her extraordinary life and work and are determined to fulfill Debby Lee’s longtime vision of providing 1.1 million New York City public school students with equal access to the highest quality environmental education, climate literacy, and participatory civics. We promised Debby Lee that we will continue our student-centered mission to honor her legacy with real student-driven change.

Debby Lee remained involved with the grand vision and the minute workings of Cafeteria Culture into her final days. Over the past year she has worked with us with love, guidance, and her blessing to ensure a smooth transition of our team’s leadership. She believed passionately that her work would continue beyond her life on this earth. Nothing could be more true — so many lives that she touched will carry her memory forward. Her legacy is overflowing with passion, empowerment, victories, beautiful connections, and love.

Debby Lee made us promise to lift up her memory by asking for anyone wishing to honor her life to do so by making a donation to Cafeteria Culture.

With love and gratitude,

Atsuko and Rhonda