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.
With the lack of school kitchens, a high percentage of food served is produced to department specs by third party facilities under contract and shipped "fresh-frozen" for re-therming at point of use. At LAUSD’s massive central production facility, the district pre-plates meals for 450 schools, up from 220 in 2006. Preparing meals centrally has helped ensure consistency and control.
The fall of 2011 was the first year LAUSD was able to fully implement its changes. Gone were chicken nuggets and pizza. In were Ancho Chili Chicken with Yakisoba; Vegetable Manicotti w/Tomato Basil Marinara; and a variety of other higher quality, more nutritious items. “All were extensively tested with hundreds of parents and over 700,000 students collectively,” says Barrett. “Parents were universally supportive.”
Still, some menus fell flat (students never like it when pizza and chicken nuggets are taken away). Enrollment declines and systemic changes—the elimination of “second chance” breakfasts, shortened lunch periods, the end of an experimental “year round” education model—also negatively affected participation. At one point meal counts were down 20 percent, but today they are back to where they were a year ago.
"A big part of our effort is to change the palates and meal expectations of students," offers Binkle. "We've replaced sugar and salt with herbs and spices and eliminated foods like cheese nachos and corn dogs. It takes time for such change to be accepted.
“We’re in this for the long haul,” he adds. “We're committed to improving the health of students and the quality of school food and our efforts are going to have these kinds of challenges.”
The Bottom Line: 27 daily menus were reduced to two. Standardizing and centrally producing pre-plated meals reduced per plate cost by $1. Five years ago, 109 million meals were produced with a food cost of $124 million; last year, 124 million meals were produced with a food cost of $89 million.
Meanwhile, LAUSD—like other schools—is preparing to comply with strict new regulations this fall that will mean more of the same kinds of menu changes and also raise meal costs.They will not be easy for LAUSD to meet and Barrett estimated they will cost the district as much as an additional $50 million a year.
A Categorical Procurement Model
With a food budget of more than $100 million, Barrett and Binkle thought LAUSD should receive the best prices possible. But comparisons with other districts showed it sometimes paid as much as $6/case more because of inefficiencies in its bid process.
“We compared our procedures with the way private companies purchase,” says Barrett. “We questioned why we let 69 individual bids when industry’s best practice is to have a prime vendor contract, the total cost of procurement and supplier relationships based on mutual benefit.
“We wanted to shift the process from being simply a 'goods bid' to one emphasizing broader service contracts,” he adds. “To one recognizing our larger goals as opposed to focusing solely on food purchases.”
More on the difference between product bids and service RFPs
To determine if this approach could yield the results it wanted, the department issued a Request for Information and Qualification (RFIQ) in February 2010. The department was moving on a fast track in order to make awards in time for the new school year . When responses were positive, LA issued RFP NO. 1007 the following month.
The district identified 11 defined criteria for making its awards. These ranged from customer service levels to technology, logistics, pricing methodology, marketing and social responsibility, including contributions to supporting its initiatives to improve student wellness, attendance and other factors.
View the full RFP
The department initially sought partners for only four of its largest food categories—beef, chicken, turkey and potatoes. It offered major procurement commitments for a five year period. (In fairness to existing contracts and suppliers, and because it made financial sense, the district committed to honoring those agreements during a transition to the new system.)
Since then, the district has added four additional categories: bread, produce, vegetarian and dairy. Next year it will add miscellaneous food and supplies, for 10 in all.
For category items that partners don’t provide directly, the district encourages partnerships between partners and subcontractors. The goal is to achieve the lowest procurement cost while ensuring a reliable supply of items the district wants on the menu from a select group of prime vendors.
The Bottom Line: The new approach has significantly reduced costs. LAUSD went from having 12 buyer positions to a single position. It is on target to meet its goal of spending 40 percent of program revenue on food and five percent on supplies this year. (Back in 2006, it spent 47 percent on food and 4.5 percent on supplies.)