The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is the second largest district in the country. The challenges that come with feeding any school district seem magnified here, and the school food program has lately been under scrutiny. But with a new director in place for less than a year, things are looking up. What’s happening now? Joseph K. Vaughn, M.Ed, director, Food Services Division at LAUSD, took the time to share some behind-the-scenes reflections.
A: First of all, I had a wonderful team in Cleveland. The superintendent, school board and the chief operating officer (my immediate boss) were very supportive of foodservices and the changes we wanted to implement. The main changes implemented in Cleveland were the introduction of a true cycle menu based around the utilization of USDA commodities and the conversion of our cafeterias to self-prep. The combination of lowering cost while increasing revenue through increased meal participation was enough to get the program in the black. I credit the procurement specialist and menu staff at Cleveland Metropolitan School District for this change.
Q: LAUSD has been operating in the red for a number of years now, but you’re starting to show progress towards becoming self-supporting now? What steps have you taken at LAUSD to hopefully get the same result as you did in Cleveland?
A: I’m so blessed [because] the school board and superintendent here are all very supportive and vested in the operation of foodservices. They truly want what’s best for our students and they insist that we serve the highest quality meal possible while also maintaining the highest nutritional integrity. My current boss, the CEO of the Office of Educational Services, Dr. Thelma Melendez, has been instrumental to my transition here at LAUSD. With her help, we’ve implemented several pilot programs intended to increase meal participation. Furthermore, we are working with the current Food Service Division leadership team to implement a variety of KPIs directed at reducing food cost. And—as in Cleveland—we worked closely with procurement and the menu staff to develop and implement a true cycle menu for both breakfast and lunch that focuses on the use of USDA commodities. We’re seeing some very positive results and we are very optimistic about the future.
Q: Food waste is an issue everywhere, and at LAUSD a study last spring found that 200 tons of food waste was being discarded every week across the district. After finding out a lot of that was milk, you brought back flavored milk (which had been eliminated a few years ago) in a pilot program. Please tell me about that?
A: In October of 2016, the board voted to allow a milk study to determine if the introduction of flavored milk might decrease waste and increase milk consumption. Foodservices is currently conducting a milk pilot study in 27 schools, which will conclude with a formal presentation in March. So far, data has demonstrated that flavored milk has reduced waste by over 75 percent and milk consumption is up dramatically. The most impressive finding so far is that our meal participation for lunch is up by over 1,000 meals per day in the schools offering flavored milk.
Q: You recently introduced a hot supper pilot. There had been a version with cold food in place. Why the change?
A: Currently our supper program offers shelf-stable or cold meals mainly to students who attend our after-school programs. It has been my experience that students prefer hot meals, if given the option. So we decided to pilot a hot supper program in 38 schools across the district to determine if we could increase meal participation by offering hot meals. We felt very strongly that if hot meals were offered, we could attract students who were currently not participating in our supper program.
Q: What’s the feedback been like so far in the pilot?
A: In our first week of the pilot, our meal participation literally tripled. Feedback from our students was extremely positive.
Q: LAUSD’s Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP) focuses on a few different factors, like impacts on local economies, environmental sustainability, food chain workers, animal welfare and nutrition. Was that in place already when you started?
A: Yes. The school board and superintendent were responsible for the implementation of the GFPP standards in 2012. The LAUSD School Board was the second institutional food purchaser to adopt GFPP, following the City of Los Angeles. Their ongoing commitment to the policy, which they reaffirmed and strengthened in 2014, is a commitment by the district to align its food procurement policies with its mission to education students and create healthy environments where students can succeed.
Q: With a Republican Congress and president coming in and potentially making changes to federal school lunch regs, what are some changes you’d like to see and what would you like them not to change?
A: This is actually an easy question. First, I would ask Congress NOT to increase the qualifying percentage for CEP above the current 40-percent limit. Increasing that percentage would be detrimental to many large districts across the country, including Cleveland and Los Angeles. Secondly, I would ask Congress to either reduce the amount of fruit offered at breakfast back to ½ cup or to increase the reimbursement to cover the cost. Adding an additional ½ cup of fruit to breakfast has had a very negative financial impact on districts across the country.