Sunday, October 17, 2010

LAUSD Seeks Assistance with the 2011-12 Menu

This past Friday, October 15th, several members of the community met with representatives of the Los Angeles Unified School District to discuss the, dare I say, revolutionary changes to the 2011-12 school menu.

Present at the meeting was Jennie Cook of Food for Lunch, Nicole Feenstra of and Walter Smith and I represented SEE-LA and the Farmer's Kitchen. LAUSD was represented by David Binkle, Deputy Director for Menu Compliance and Florence Simpson, Senior Food Service Supervisor.

Read on for my notes on the meeting.

David Binkle led the discussion, outlining the need for community input on the menu planning process. LAUSD is planning on making the most radical changes to their menu in decades and there isn't much time to develop and test the many new items they are planning on adding to the menu. Due to budgetary constraints, there are many fewer employees to do more work. Thus, they are seeking the public's assistance in improving the health and well-being of the students of LAUSD.

More than the menu is on the table. Binkle noted that this week he had spoken with an organic farmer about the feasibility of LAUSD putting out bids for produce to farmers as opposed to contracting with a middleman produce company.

Furthermore, because of the major changes to menu, LAUSD will be seeking a great deal of assistance in explaining the many changes to the students, administrators and community at large. This is obviously where community members can be of great assistance. I am especially concerned that many school administrators are not supporting improvements to student access to good food. Binkle provided an anecdote about a principal he met with recently who suggested cutting school breakfast in order to save a good deal of salary from the teachers and physical plant employees who have to come earlier for the breakfast crowd.

Jennie Cook commented that the menu was moving in the right direction, but that more radical change was needed – more whole fruits and rice and beans for lunch. She acknowledged that she had no institutional stake in the matter, and sought only to represent the children's best interest in healthy meals. She also brought up the USDA school lunch standards will be expiring soon and that perhaps LAUSD should seek a waiver, perhaps for a pilot program that would implement her more radical suggestions.

Following the USDA school lunch standards comment, Binkle noted that suggestions on school nutrition policy would also be accepted. For example, banning the use of high fructose corn syrup in school meals. (I believe this is actually already the policy).

One major issue with regard to a school nutrition policy is student access to “competitive” foods. Snacks from vending machines, meals from fast food outlets located near schools, food trucks, etc. are considered competitive foods, since students eat the junk food in preference to the healthier options available in the cafeteria. This problem will never be eliminated, but I'm not sure why a comprehensive school nutrition policy can't address these. And although the school board may not have much authority outside the boundaries of the school, I'm not sure why we shouldn't be able to get support from the city council. After all, there was a moratorium on the construction of new fast food restaurants in certain areas of the city. Why not a moratorium on selling junk food to students near schools during school hours?

Nicole Feenstra commented on the communications issue, noting that a 360-degree policy was necessary, incorporating as many parties as possible, particularly school gardens.

In response, Jennie Cook talked about incorporating eco-literacy as an aspect of the communications strategy. David Binkle noted that will be working with Alice Waters and Zenobia Barlow on an eco-literacy program that includes developing more school kitchens in Oakland as part of it. We all hope that he'll bring the lessons he learns up north back to LA.

With the discussion turning towards kitchens, Walter Smith noted that there are many underutilized kitchens in the LA area. He suggested that we take advantage of these kitchens by moving towards a more distributed model of making lunches for students by having schools partner with local kitchens to supply some of their meals. Although switching to such a system would be difficult and require significant logistical coordination, it would tie schools closer to their communities and create more jobs in the communities associated with the schools.

Both I and David Binkle noted the logistical difficulties, but there could be some tremendous advantages as well. Unfortunately, this is a long-term concept, but a pilot program would not be out of order.

Florence Simpson reminded everybody that any such programs need to take into account the diversity of the LAUSD and be applicable to schools in both the poorest and wealthiest neighborhoods.

Back to the menu and the communication problem. I suggested that we engage the chef community of LA to take responsibility and develop signature recipes for the school menu. Not every dish, of course but why not? Imagine you would have Mark Peel's Beef Goulash or one of Neil Fraser's contemporary American fare dishes on a school menu? It's win-win-win. Kids and parents would be more excited about the menu, the chefs get free advertising and help develop the palates of future foodies, and the school administration gets a lot of help.

Nicole suggested that, in addition to chefs, we should develop some sort of recipe contest to develop recipes that come from the school communities. So, for example, Mark Peel's Goulash might be next to Mrs. Nguyễn's Pho on the school lunch menu. Although there isn't enough time for such a program this year, it was suggested that there might be enough time to organize something for the Spring. Definitely a good way of getting the community involved and informing people about the change to the menu.

Both David Binkle and Florence Simpson than noted that LAUSD has problems with some of their suppliers. LAUSD has put a lot of companies out of business. Companies are thrilled to get a contract with LAUSD, build out their capacity, only to find that they're unable to keep up with demand, they're quality is inconsistent, whatever, and end up being dropped. I have no expertise in these sort of bid/contract/manufacturing issues, but perhaps other interested members of the community can make suggestions to the LAUSD so that this is less likely to occur. It would be a tragedy to have a great menu that couldn't be implemented because LAUSD can't contract with manufacturers.

Walter suggested contingency planning, especially as increased weather variability will make reliance on contracts for fresh fruits and variables somewhat more uncertain.

Focusing on the present issue of the 2011-12 menu, there is a December 17th deadline to finalize it. That doesn't leave much time, especially as many recipes must be developed and tested with students. LAUSD is soliciting assistance for both tasks. Walter and I volunteered the Farmer's Kitchen to do some of the testing.

Obviously it is important that the students accept the food being provided. Healthy food does no good if the students aren't eating it. So, strategies and ideas of how to get students to eat these new recipes are also necessary. This is particularly a concern for the cafeteria managers, who are meeting about the new menu (among other things) on Oct. 26, 27, and 28.

Jennie brought up the concept of “meatless Mondays” for the menu. Florence noted that there is a vegetarian selection everyday. I suggested that the idea had merit, but needed to be framed in a more positive way – perhaps by celebrating a dish based on “Harvest of the Month” or something.

In any case, the meeting ended with an emphasis on getting as much feedback on the new menu as possible, as well as assistance in developing and testing recipes. December 17th is the deadline.

I'll be posting the proposed menu shortly.

So, who has some ideas?


  1. This segment appeared on KCRW's Good Food, School Lunch edition: AVI Systems (11:21AM)

    Greg Enslen is Executive Chef at Granville, Ohio School District and at AVI Fresh. He is working with local farmers to supplement the school lunch offerings. The costs have gone up slightly, but they're seeing much healthier options now available to students. Read about Greg's efforts in The Columbus Dispatch. Here is the link. Can't LAUSD take a page out of this book to update and upgrade its policies? We are the bread basket of the country with farms within driving distance. How can we NOT include local and organic?

    And while we are at it, there needs to be buy in from the unions whose employees staff the school kitchens and cafeterias. Get them on board to return to cutting and preparing real food. And make it a learning experience for them, so they can take the same lessons home with them in their personal lives.

  2. Thank you for the comments. It is important to realize that there are scalability issues and facilities issues that make a rapid switch to such a program very, very difficult. We need to include more local and organic, but LAUSD does serve 650,000 meals a day, as compared to the 1,100 meals in the Granville school district. Additionally, there are 300 schools that don't have any cafeteria at all, let alone one where food can be made in a kitchen. These are where we want to go, but there are tremendous barriers in LAUSD we must overcome. It will take a lot of hardwork on our part, as well as patience.

    Money is an issue. LAUSD is losing money spending even $0.77 per meal, as opposed to the $1.13 that the Granville program has.

    Still, Granville seems to be the type of program we should be aiming for.

  3. With the dire budget constraints facing LAUSD's meal program, why are they only charging full-paying students $1.00 - $1.50 for a meal? Is this to keep participation rates up, so they don't lose commodity entitlements? LAUSD has one of the lowest priced school lunches I've seen almost anywhere...