What is in this article?:
Changing the course of a district the size of LAUSD has been a massive effort. Much has been said, some right and some wrong, about it, but an accurate portrayal of its full scope and scale has been missing. FM takes an in-depth look.
“The facts, Ma’am. Just the facts.”
That iconic phrase is attributed to the character Sgt. Joe Friday on the radio and TV show Dragnet. In reality, he never said it. According to Wikipedia, the closest lines were, "All we want are the facts, ma'am."
Still, the good sergeant would be right on the case if asked to nail down the facts about the Los Angeles Unified School District and its ambitious efforts to re-engineer foodservice operations since 2007. That was when, after a national search, LAUSD hired Dennis Barrett to administer its program, restructure its operations and change its future course.
“I think I was probably the only one foolish enough to accept the position,” Barrett quips today. “It’s a big district with lots of challenges. To many, they seemed insurmountable.”
Last month, after many changes, Barrett announced his retirement and passed the reins to David Binkle, whom he hired as his right hand in 2007 as Deputy Director for Menu and Compliance. Binkle will now serve as interim director.
Changing the course of a district the size of LAUSD has been a massive effort. Much has been said, some right and some wrong, about it, but an accurate portrayal of its full scope and scale has been missing. In this article, FM takes a look at what Barrett and Binkle have accomplished and what still remains to be done…
Consider the Territory
LAUSD is one of the very largest school nutrition programs in the country. It has been in the forefront of change for a long time, often forging new ground in nutrition policy and also coping with the challenge of operating in a high-cost, urban environment. It serves 618,000 students, most with subsidized meals, at 763 schools across a 700 square mile district.
Back in 2002, the LAUSD board made improving the nutrition and quality of the food it served children a top priority. With leadership from board President Marlene Canter, it approved far-reaching local policies governing all foods and beverages available in district schools. Many of its policies eventually inspired both state and federal school nutrition policies.
Setting goals was one thing, but achieving them meant addressing longstanding problems. The district’s commitment to “living wage” and benefit policies, even for part-time workers, means it has some of the highest overhead and operating costs in school foodservice. This virtually guarantees annual budget deficits when the program is fully staffed and means less money is available for food per meal, handicapping food quality and nutrition goals.
Many of its facilities lacked kitchens and adequate indoor seating. And in spite of a high percentage of subsidized meal students, program participation remained relatively low, partly because public perception of its meal quality was poor.
Further, a state Coordinated Review Effort (CRE) audit in 2004-05 found serious deficiencies in the district’s performance standards. Its critical ratings for counting/claiming reimbursable meals and for meeting menu and nutrition standards were out of compliance.
Another state review in 2007 revealed that the district had overspent its 2005-06 USDA Foods entitlement by $7 million, underscoring a serious lack of control of the commodity program.
The good intentions were there and fully supported by the board. But the need to take corrective action was urgent.
Adding value, reducing costs
As a $259 million non-commercial food service operation, LAUSD’s program is roughly equivalent to a $600 million fast food chain. At the same time, it operates under much tighter federal and local regulation (and certainly, a lot more political and policy concerns) than any chain.
But despite the parallels, LAUSD was not operated like a profit-and-loss business and Barrett set out to change that. A respected leader in the school nutrition community, he was a past recipient of the coveted IFMA Silver Plate award for his work in the Dallas, Texas, district and had a strong track record overseeing large production systems and operations.
“There was a strong desire here to make this district’s program a true national leader in school nutrition,” Barrett says. “The program also had to be put on a sound business footing. Those were the challenges that really attracted me.”
One of Barrett’s first moves in early 2007 was to “bring in backup” in the person of David Binkle, whom he had worked with previously in Dallas. Binkle also had an extensive management and culinary production background on both the contract and self-op sides.
“We asked, ‘Where are there processes that aren’t adding value to our business?” Barrett says. “We wanted to know where we were adding unnecessary costs and also to identify costs that were outside the department’s control.”