Debby Lee Cohen
interdisciplinary artist and zero waste activist
Debby Lee Cohen is a multi-disciplinary artist, teacher, plastic-free activist, Executive Director and Founder of Cafeteria Culture, and Co-producer/director of Cafeteria Culture's award winning documentary feature, Microplastic Madness. She has designed scenery, giant puppets, and animation for theater, film and television, including HBO. In 2009, she decided to apply her design, teaching, and collaboration skills towards achieving zero waste public school cafeterias and to eliminate the 860,000 toxic and polluting plastic polystyrene (aka, styrofoam) lunch trays used per day in NYC schools. Partnering with parents, students, teachers, and school food directors, this effort resulted in the ten largest US urban school districts eliminating over a half billion styrofoam trays annually from landfills, incinerators and student meals!
Cohen leads the Cafeteria Culture team, working creatively with youth to achieve equitable zero waste, climate-smart school communities, and a plastic free biosphere and innovating youth programs that merge citizen science and civic action with media production and the arts. Students in Cafeteria Culture's programs, overwhelmingly from lower income communities of color, provide an urgently needed voice to the environmental and climate movements by taking on leadership and advocacy roles and bridging the interconnected issues of waste, environmental justice and the climate crisis.
HBO credits include Consultant/ Art Director for "Saving My Tomorrow"; Set Designer for Emmy Award "Classical Baby”; and Segment Producer on “Twas the Night.” Cohen's animation aired on PBS and MTV. She designed a children’s parade with giant puppets in Paris and the lead puppets for NY's Halloween Parade for 8 years, and art directed Meredith Monk’s performance for 120 performers at The Guggenheim Museum (2009). She designed scenery for productions at BAM, Houston Grand Opera, and Lincoln Center.
Personal artistic grants awarded include NYFA, NEA, and the Jim Henson Foundation. She has taught interdisciplinary arts and environmental education at Parsons the New School, to teens at risk, inmates, seniors and thousands of NYC public school students.
Under Cohen’s directorship, Cafeteria Culture received a UL Innovative Education Award (2015) and a US EPA Environmental Quality Award (2013). She was honored to receive an official “proclamation” from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer (2018) recognizing her zero waste efforts and an Eco Hero Award from the Eco-Hero award from the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) Green Schools Committee for catalyzing Trayless Tuesdays (2010)
Cohen serves as a member of the Manhattan Citizen's Solid Waste Advisory Board (MSWAB) and Steering Group for the Plastic Free Waters Partnership NY/NJ (formerly US EPA Region 2 Trash Free Waters Partnership).
Debby Lee Cohen and husband with giant puppets - protesting the use of 850,000 Styrofoam lunch trays used per day in NYC public schools at City Hall. See the CBS News coverage here.