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Changing the Way 650,000 Students Eat in Los Angeles

The city of Los Angeles is known all around the world for Hollywood, Beverly Hills, celebrities as well as glitz and glamour. There are more than 125,000 millionaires and more than 20 billionaires in this city I now call home.  

But the reality is there is still a big discrepancy in quality of life between the elite and the majority of students I serve as food services director at Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second largest school district in the country.

Of the 650,000 students we serve daily, 80 percent qualifies for free and reduced meals, which means the students and their families live in circumstances of poverty. In addition, 14,000 of our students are certified homeless with no fixed address.

The problem for many of these children is that the meal in school is often times the only source of nutrition available. Many of them live in food deserts where the corner liquor store or the nearby food restaurant is the only place to purchase food.

The need to change the way students eat in Los Angeles was due to alarming obesity rates from 2001-2008. There was almost a vertical incline in the rates of morbidly obese children.

Los Angeles Unified School student enjoying tasty new meals

As a result, our Former Board President Marlene Canter appeared in the Morgan Spurlock 2004 movie “Supersize Me,” sharing that we should be teaching children lifelong healthy learning habits and not feeding them “carnival food” like nachos and corndogs on a stick, consequently making them addicted to cheap, processed foods.

In 2002, the LAUSD Board of Education made a bold move by restricting access to carbonated beverages to students. In 2004, the choices of snacks in schools were changed to healthier products and in 2005 came the “Cafeteria Reform” motion and “Obesity Prevention” motion, which restricted meal offerings. Restrictions included no additives or preservatives, no artificial dyes and a focus on serving more fresh fruits and vegetables.

In 2012, the LAUSD Board of Education unanimously passed the “Improving Food and Nutrition Policy” and the “Good Food Procurement Resolution” led by Board Members Steven Zimmer, Monica Garcia and Nury Martinez. These policies included local sourcing, animal welfare, farm and industry workers rights, as well as the elimination of any added sugars to any food service item by 2015.   

Today, we no longer serve items like flavored milk, chicken nuggets, tater tots, corn dogs, pizza and nachos. Today, what we do serve are atypical “kid-friendly items:” edamame, jicama sticks, teriyaki chicken bowls, turkey and vegetarian burgers as well as fresh fruits and vegetables. We’ve even taken 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act step further. We’re proud to say we’re sourcing 75 percent of our fresh fruits and vegetables within 200 miles of the District. 

Class from Wilshire Elementary visiting a local farm that supplies food to LAUSD

While there has been debate over the last few months whether federal school meals regulations should be loosened or rolled back, LAUSD Food Services can attest that they are working. Thanks to the leadership of the First Lady and her Let’s Move! initiative, we’re now providing the freshest possible food for our students and participation couldn’t be better!  

Because of these healthy changes, consumption IS on the rise. For the 2013-2014, we project to serve 15 million more meals to a total of 114 million by the end of the school year.  The consumption of low fat or nonfat fat milk is now back to the same level when flavored milks were served three years ago.    

We’ve also adopted programs like “Meatless Monday” and “Breakfast in the Classroom” to ensure our students have proper nutrition at school. We’ve changed the way we procure items. We’ve evolved from a purchasing system where price was the primary concern to one in which factors such as quality, environmental stewardship, and the economic impact of our purchase on local communities are just as important.

Change at LAUSD did not happen overnight. But with childhood obesity rates now in the decline in Los Angeles County – attributable in part to meals in school, LAUSD is living proof that every school district in the county, big or small, can change the way students eat.