LOS ANGELES – A coalition of the largest school districts in the United States recently adopted a new standard which calls for antibiotic-free chicken in school meals.

The Urban School Food Alliance includes New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas and Orlando school districts. Combined, the districts serve nearly 2.9 million students daily and procure more than $550 million in food and supplies annually. A stated goal of the alliance is to use members' purchasing power to control costs while raising standards for the quality of food served to students.

The Urban School Food Alliance has committed to a standard that requires all chicken products be produced under a US Department of Agriculture Process Verified Program that mandates:

• No animal by-products in the feed
• Raised on an all-vegetarian diet
• Humanely raised as outlined in the National Chicken Council Animal Welfare Guidelines
• No antibiotics administered

Additionally, if a food company cannot supply the full volume of antibiotic-free chicken, the company must submit a written plan detailing when the supplier will meet the standard. In the meantime, the supplier must provide USDA Process Verified (third party) for Therapeutic Use Only chicken as defined in the Natural Resources Defense Council's “Support For Antibiotic Stewardship in Poultry Production” or School Food FOCUS/The PEW Charitable Trusts “Purchasing Guidelines That Minimize the Use of Antibiotics in Poultry Production.”

“The standards we're asking from the manufacturers go above and beyond the quality of the chicken we normally purchase at local supermarkets,” said Eric Goldstein, Urban School Food Alliance chairman and CEO of School Support Services for the New York City Department of Education. “This move by the alliance shows that school food directors across the country truly care about the health and wellness of students.”

The National Chicken Council said in a statement that the organization shares in the goal of providing school children with healthy, safe and affordable food.

“Chicken is the most nutritious, versatile and affordable protein available, especially for growing, school-aged children," NCC said. "In some instances, school breakfast and lunch might be the only opportunity for kids to eat high-quality protein during the day.

“We support consumer and student choice, but we strongly caution against food trends that are not fully supported by science, will introduce higher costs into the food system, and offer no benefit to public health.”

NCC added that that the use of antibiotics for growth promotion are being phased out and the role of the veterinarian in prescribing them is being expanded.