The monthly Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Cafeteria Improvement Committee meeting took place this past Monday, October 11th. This committee has been meeting for several years, but recently there has been an increase in interest in the issue of school nutrition, and the committee has become more popular. It is open to the public, so parents and other concerned citizens can provide their input as well.
Now is actually quite an exciting time to participate on the committee because not only is there increased interest in the topic, but the LAUSD is preparing to make some of the biggest changes in its school menus in its history.
The committee is chaired by Dennis Barrett, director of LAUSD's Food Service Division. David Binkle (Food Service/Menu Compliance) also represented LAUSD FSD.
Unfortunately, other (should be) interested parties from LAUSD were not represented. Facilities Service Division, which is responsible for the construction of new schools and modernizing existing schools was not present. There was some discussion about getting them involved, but it seems that Facilities hasn't been much interested in hearing the committee's suggestions on providing adequate kitchens, food distribution designs and eating accommodations.
Did you know that in many of LAUSD's secondary schools there is no indoor seating for students to eat? There might be a few covered, but unwalled areas, but no seating area free from weather (yeah, it doesn't rain much in Southern California but, sheesh) and competition from pigeons. Yes, school plans take years to come to fruition, but the childhood obesity epidemic isn't going to be solved in a couple of years. We need long term planning. We need Facilities Service Division to make adequate access to good food for students one of their priorities.
Also conspicuous by their absence was anyone representing principals and other school administrators. One of the biggest problems for students having adequate access to good food is that they don't have time to eat it. Principals are notorious for limiting meal hours in order to maximize classroom hours. Instead of several lunch periods, administrations will schedule a single lunch period, forcing thousands of students to overrun the cafeteria at once and leaving many hungry at the end of the thirty-minute period. On the other extreme, some schools are scheduling lunch as early as 10am, well before students are hungry for lunch. Frankly, the way some of these schools schedule lunch, if the students were employees the schools would be in violation of state labor standards for adequate breaks.
There were many representatives of community organizations. Matt Sharp of California Food Policy Advocates was there, of course, along with several of his co-workers. Elizabeth Medrano of Occidental College's Urban and Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) and head of the Healthy School Coalition was also there along with other members of her coalition. I could go on, but lack of time prevents me from continuing.
There were a number of students of Professor William McCarthy, Adjunct Professor of Public Health at UCLA, present as observers (for class credit). Hopefully, many of them will choose to move from observation into action.
The beginning of the meeting was an overview of the lunch program and the financial status of the Food Services Division (dire) for those who were new to the committee. Just a couple of years ago, the School Board determined that part-time employees of the FSD, who usually worked 15 hours a week would work a minimum of 20 hours a week and be entitled to full medical/dental/vision benefits for them and their families at no cost. While this might have benefited the employees, it meant that the money available for student meals dropped from 86 cents a meal to 57 cents. It has since climbed back to 77 cents due to contracting reforms and other efficiencies implemented by FSD, but that is still less than adequate for healthy meals for children.
The most important item on the agenda was the unveiling of a proposed 2011-2012 menu for the schools. It is amazing. Not perfect, by any means, but a revolutionary move forward. Seriously, revolutionary. No longer will pizza, chicken wings and bean/cheese burritos be the mainstay of the diet, but increased fruits and vegetables in a wide variety of culturally relevant preparations. Jambalaya, quinoa salad, black bean soup, black-eyed pea salad, and vegetable manicotti are just a few of the healthy dishes proposed for this new menu. Of course, this is just a proposal, and it will be the mission of the menu planning committee to see to it that the menu is implemented as much as feasibly possible.
The menu planning committee is meeting this coming Friday, Oct. 13th. I'll report more on the new menu then.
See my next post for the recommendations that I made based on the old menu.