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.
What the critics say
Several of LAUSD’s foodservice initiatives have been controversial and the district’s approach has its share of critics.
For example, some believe that seeking vendor involvement in a district’s marketing campaign inevitably adds to the cost of product and goes beyond a prudent use of public funds. In response, Binkle points out that the terms of LAUSD’s RFP were reviewed by the district’s general counsel multiple times.
“Each time, counsel concluded it is a reasonable request within the context of the RFP.” Ensuring that vendors commit to socially responsible policies serves the district's program and community and is similarly appropriate, he adds.
Others have criticized the relatively long RFP contract terms (five years) and emphasis on a small number of primary category partners, suggesting it favors large suppliers over smaller ones who might be able to effectively bid on only parts of a category. While the district negotiates products and prices with each category vendor, critics say monopoly contracts can work to undermine open, competitive pricing. They also say there is some risk in relying so heavily on so few suppliers.
Barrett and Binkle point to significant savings the approach has generated and argue that the point of competitive bidding is to assure the lowest costs overall, not on individual items.
Other concerns are expressed by those who see the USDA commodity program as one designed to serve the interests of both school nutrition and the agricultural sector. They worry that a focus on so few commodities may weaken the broad political support that makes the program possible or affect the availability of those commodities to other buyers.
Perhaps the most controversial initiative attempted by the district was its request to have USDA directly divert its commodity credit to category partners. The goal was to more efficiently plan menus around specific, commercially-available items and the department saw this as more efficient than the existing system of working through the state authority.
That approach has not been approved. Existing law provides that USDA work with states, which in turn set up comodity agreements with individual districts.
While such a change would theoretically result in considerable savings for LAUSD, it would also have far reaching implications. Were it allowed, other large purchasing influences would likely seek to follow suit. And if the largest users opted out of the state program, it would force districts still using it to carry all its considerable overhead costs. Presently, large commodity users essentially cross-subsidize smaller ones via the state fee structure, whether they actually use the state warehousing and distribution system or not.
Without question, Barrett and Binkle have taken LAUSD's commitment to improving the health of the district’s students via school nutrition to a level many would have found unimaginable a half dozen years ago.
They’ve dramatically changed the way LA’s nutrition program is administered and put in place groundbreaking strategies likely to influence foodservice programs across the country.
For LAUSD and its partners, the new model opens doors for collaborative efforts unlike any possible in traditional bids. Among other benefits, the longer terms and large commitments allow customized product development and mutually beneficial item rotations geared specifically to the school market.
Some initiatives—such as one to modernize the merchandizing capabilities of school serveries—will require additional funding. But the district’s most daunting challenge is to consolidate its gains while continuing to restructure to meet the strict requirements of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act that takes effect this fall.
While the district has already met many nutritional targets (its meals have been at 1100 mg of sodium for several years, while the new regs only require a 1400 mg level four years from now), compliance will be costly.
With Barrett’s decision to retire last month, Binkle will be the one shouldering that challenge. His own extensive culinary and production background seems likely to influence that future.
“I see us going back to more onsite cooking,” Binkle says. “It would not be totally from scratch, but would implement more finishing production at school sites.”
One way would be for some local schools to serve as production hubs for others nearby, he says. Another might be to scale back use of the pre-plating facility, outsourcing some of that work to third parties that would deliver fresh meal components to schools each day.
Binkle also sees some potential in using third party contracts to develop items that could be sold in retail outlets under the trademarked Café LA brand. “There are many prominent people in the community who would like to help us do something like this to create an enterprise fund supporting education,” he adds.
Such ideas are still in the future. If the past is any guide, they will only come to fruition if the financials and data support them. For now, “There is still much to do in the schools. We need to stay focused on our goals and the plan we’ve developed to help reach them,” Binkle says.