What is in this article?:
- Course Correction for Los Angeles School Foodservices
- A top-to-bottom review
- Menu overhaul
- Addressing participation issues
- What the critics say
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.
Addressing participation issues
LAUSD’s enrollments have been in a slow decline, about three percent a year, since 2007. Meanwhile, participation in senior high schools was under 20%, despite 80% free and reduced price eligibility. The low levels weren't for lack of trying—in 2007, up to 15 different entrée choices were offered daily across the system—but choice wasn’t the core issue.
“The community perceived our food as highly processed, of poor quality and not nutritious,” Barrett says. “That is what had to change.” Standardizing menus and upgrading entree offerings and ingredients were a high priority, as already described.
The new RFP also established support for the district's campaign to improve its public image as a key criteria for suppliers, asking vendors what they could contribute, cash or in-kind, to support that initiative. One of the more significant results of the new approach was an image-building campaign suggested by what became one of the district’s category partners.
The company offered to use its marketing resources to help develop a promotional campaign and theme—“I’m In”—that proved so successful it was adopted by the entire district: “I’m in for good health” … “I’m in for eating right” … “I’m in to stay physically active” … “I’m in to study hard and succeed.”
Another supplier created an online app system to let LAUSD families and students get nutritional and other information about the food offered on its menus.
The Bottom Line: Senior high school participation has risen from 20 percent to 38 percent. Middle schools percentages have gone from the 20s to the mid 40s, with elementary participation remaining flat at 75 percent. Over 40 million “impressions” across multiple media have been documented by people exposed to LAUSD’s school meal marketing message.
Commodity credit utilization
One of the most misunderstood pieces of the LAUSD strategy is its approach to using USDA Foods entitlement dollars.
While Federal support is always welcome, “The USDA Foods program has always presented one of the great uncertainties in school foodservice,” says Barrett.
The biggest weakness: a district’s commodity choices must be submitted as much as 24 months in advance of a school year, with no guarantee those commodities will eventually be available. When availability is known, it often is well after menus are planned and further processing and procurement arrangements are made.
LAUSD sought to dramatically change the way it participated in the commodity program, applying all of its annual credit to only the four items it could divert to its category partners for reprocessing. That would ensure that whatever credit did become available would apply against product or ingredients it knew it would use in its menu plan.
(While some believed this required a change USDA rules, there has never been a federal requirement that a district request any particular combination of items. Some states do apportion entitlements between Type A and Type B items, but this is not a federal or a California requirement.)
LAUSD also wanted to go further in taking more non value-added costs out of the way the commodity program operated. It wanted to supplement its USDA Foods account with its Section 4 and 11 meal reimbursement funds. A 1994 change in NSLA law allowed this approach, but it had never been tried and required approval by the state authority. While seemingly simple, the change complicates state accounting systems and getting approval has been a drawn-out process.
Finally, because of the way the commodity program operates, with USDA allotments distributed via state systems, LAUSD currently must pay the California State Agency a fee of $.80 (recently decreased from $1.00) per case, even when its USDA Foods are directly diverted to processors. It wanted to work directly with USDA’s purchasing offices, circumventing the state and its fees, and lobbied to have those allotment dollars applied directly to commercial product purchases.
The Bottom Line: LAUSD successfully narrowed its commodity program purchases to its primary categories. A pilot program to test the direct transfer of Section 4 and 11 funds to its commodity purchase account was finally approved this spring after USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) department, Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and the Child Nutrition Division of the California Department of Education agreed on an amendment to the state’s contract with USDA.
To date, the district's proposal to have commodity allotment dollars paid directly to the district's vendors has not been approved and would require a change in the law (more on that in a moment).