In Partnership with 74

After a year on the job, Joseph Vaughn takes a big bite out of LA’s food services deficit, turning each classroom into a mini restaurant

Mike Szymanski | July 31, 2017

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Feeding the kids of Los Angeles has its own set of unique challenges. Not only is it one of the largest school populations in the country with 665,000 mouths to feed every day, the district is now open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner at most of its 1,100 locations, dishing up 132 million meals a year.

Joseph Vaughn took over LAUSD Food Services a year ago.

And it’s one of the most culturally diverse populations in the nation. So their pork carnitas tortillas and salsa may be a hit in one section of the district while the teriyaki beef and broccoli bowl may be more popular in another area.

It’s the largest breakfast program in the country, and the second-largest lunch program, with a budget of $394 million and 4,000 employees.

To top it off, there are all the self-imposed restrictions. The school board passed the Good Food Purchasing Program which directs the district to consider local food suppliers, environmental sustainability, animal welfare, and nutritional value in selecting what to buy. Also, it’s the first large school district to require antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken and turkey. The school board approved resolutions to stop milk waste, start a vegan pilot program, offer supper to all Title 1 schools, and limit fundraising events at fast-food restaurants. The district is a multiple winner in the Healthier US School Challenge and part of the Whole Grain CouncilUrban School Food Alliance, Meatless Mondays, and California Thursdays, an initiative that commits to serving California-grown products.

All of those mandates on the food services division cost money, more than $168 million over four years, and it resulted in a persistent drain of about $50 million every year from the general fund, something highlighted in a report by the Independent Financial Review Panel. The panel recommended the division be self-sustaining.

To end the financial drain, the district brought in Joseph K. Vaughn, who turned the Cleveland School District into a self-sustaining food services program for the first time.

On Aug. 1, Vaughn celebrates his one-year anniversary at LA Unified, and he said now he is 60 percent toward the goal of making the school district self-sustaining. He is doing that by cutting waste and increasing meals served — which helps the department make money — by turning each classroom into a mini restaurant. In an extensive interview, Vaughn explained how he is cutting costs with the food services program.

LAUSD students eating lunch

Cafeteria in South Los Angeles.

His changes in the past year have included:

  • Bringing back flavored milk. After a ban initiated by parents, flavored milk was reintroduced this year, resulting in nearly 4 million more lunches served this year.
  • A roll-out this year that will serve suppers at all Title 1 schools, which could nearly double to about 150,000 the number of daily suppers served over the next two years and generate $16.6 million in revenue. A pilot program this past year resulted in tripling the suppers served in the participating 40 schools.
  • A significant decrease in waste, including that of milk, which is the single most expensive waste item in the district. They also hope to expand their charity donations of uneaten food.
  • Turning the 19,000 classrooms that serve breakfasts into “mini restaurants” in order to better figure out what students prefer and to reduce garbage.
  • Dishing out 766,000 meals a day. That’s approximately 350,000 breakfasts, 340,000 lunches, and 76,000 suppers per day on an annual average.
  • Encouraging charter school participation. So far, 11 co-located charter schools (about 1,800 students) use the LA Unified food services, and he hopes to expand that, charging at-cost fees, to many of the 211 independent charters.
  • He cut his main office staff by 30 percent this past year but still has 70 employees working in the downtown Beaudry headquarters and more than 4,000 throughout the district.
  • An incentive program to get more students to eat breakfasts.
  • Rolling out a vegan pilot program that will start in seven schools in September.
  • Starting a “Choose What You Want, Eat What You Choose” campaign to launch in the fall that helps students pick their food wisely.
  • Food services last year took in $15.9 million more than the previous year due to increased meal sales and spent $1.3 million less in serving those meals.
  • He is on his way, about 60 percent there, to making the Food Services program self-sustaining. In his first 10 months on the job he reduced costs by $33 million compared to the same period last year.

In June, Vaughn prematurely said there would not be any encroachment to the general fund when his office made a presentation to the Budget, Facilities and Audit Committee. He said at the time, “For the first time in many, many years, food services will need no general support this year.” And he predicted he wouldn’t need it next year.

In an interview, he quickly amended his statement that the program is not completely self-sustainable yet. “We have been making significant progress toward increasing revenue due to the programs that were implemented last school year. There is a need for $5.7 million for the cafeteria fund in 2017-18 and an expected $24.2 million in 2019-20, as well as an ongoing general fund expenditure of $26 million in support of the cafeteria fund.

“We don’t want to take any money away from the classroom, and in fact, I hope to put some money back,” he said.

(Click on photo to play video of the committee meeting.)

Vaughn, who has a heavy Southern accent from his native Alabama, led food services in Huntsville and Scottsboro, Alabama, and most recently at Cleveland Metropolitan School District. In all three districts he is credited with policy improvements that increased both revenue and meal participation. He has a master’s degree in education from Post University in Connecticut and a bachelor’s degree from Newberry College in South Carolina.

In Cleveland, he faced similar challenges but on a smaller scale. With a $24 million budget and 40,000 students, he increased meal participation by 2,800 meals a day and revamped more than half the cafeterias to cook meals rather than serve pre-heated ones. He also started summer food programs with three meals a day.

Vaughn took the $166,200-a-year LA Unified job last Aug. 1, succeeding acting co-directors Timikel Sharpe and Laura Benavidez, who took over the food services position in Boston. The previous full-time LA Unified food services director, David Binkle, was a nationally renowned food guru who resigned in 2015 after an audit found massive waste, ethical breaches, and financial mismanagement.

“I’ve spent an entire career fighting child hunger, and what better place to make such a positive impact than the second-largest school district in the country,” Vaughn said. “Although our division has had some financial difficulties in the past, we are well on our way to becoming self-supporting. I believe that this school year will be record-setting both in meal participation and in finances.”

Even though he overstated the sustainability of food services, school board members heaped praise on Vaughn’s accomplishments so far.

“You haven’t been here more than a hot minute, and look what you have accomplished so far,” board member George McKenna said at the June committee meeting. “For this to happen, you had to be intentional about this, trying to get this to self-sustaining.”

New board President Ref Rodriguez said he has appreciated Vaughn’s willingness to meet with students at his Youth Leadership Cabinet to hear about what food they would like served. “And these students are very opinionated about the food program,” Rodriguez said.

From the Food Services division.

Outgoing board member Mónica Ratliff said, “You deserve a lot of kudos for what you’ve done so far. You brought with you a real desire to make a change here. I’m particularly impressed with how you are making every classroom a mini restaurant.”

Thinking of each of the 19,000 classrooms served as its individual restaurant has helped decrease waste, Vaughn said.

By closely monitoring what each classroom takes and what food is sent back, the cafeteria staff can better tailor breakfasts to each classroom. If, for example, one classroom takes more bananas than apples, then that class gets allotted more bananas.

Dawn Soto, a senior Food Services training specialist, said that in the past year, the staff trained more than 500 teachers to explain nutrition to the children so they can make good food choices. The new programs have reduced a lot of waste that once was the equivalent weight of 200 elephants a week in the district.

“By treating every classroom like a little mini restaurant, we have less to throw away by the end of the day,” Soto said.

Using animated characters and slogans such as “Save it for later, alligator,” students are also encouraged to keep some of the food for later – but not milk, which is still the most discarded item — and most costly.

Another program, “Choose what you want, eat what you choose,” was tested at Lillian Street Elementary in South Los Angeles this past year in a pilot program. Teachers wore stickers and allowed children to pick three items from their breakfast choices but asked that they eat or save everything they picked and not throw it away. The program proved successful and will be implemented districtwide this year.

“We don’t want to see the food go into the garbage,” Vaughn said. “We are constantly trying to reduce waste, and that saves us money.”

Vaughn holds regular meetings with his staff and emphasizes that everyone share cost-saving tactics.

An incentive program gives 20 cents per student per day to schools where at least 70 percent of their students eat breakfasts. Two years ago, 588 of the 630 schools that are in the Breakfast in the Classroom program reached that level. This past year, 618 schools hit that mark.

LA Unified cafeteria line in San Fernando Valley.

Charter schools can also use the district’s food services, and 11 of the 211 independent charters do. “We intend to seek out their business in the future,” Vaughn said about the other charter schools. He said charters could significantly reduce costs by using LA Unified’s services.

Although districts such as San Francisco have recently banned flavored milk, LA Unified went back to introducing it, and it helped bring students back to the lunch line. He said that nationally, milk is one of the five components of a meal and must be served, and that water is not an option.

“I support the board’s decision to let them choose water or juice instead of milk if students want, but it’s a federal mandate that I don’t think will change soon,” Vaughn said. He does worry about food budgets being cut nationally, which could only add to his concerns about cutting costs.

However, the power of numbers has benefited LA Unified. The costs of antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken and turkey have decreased since LA Unified mandated it, and he said he hopes to see the same with plant-based milk if the board decides to expand its vegan program.

“We are setting a standard for higher quality food in school cafeterias across the country,” Vaughn said. “Everybody has an opinion on food. For school lunches, they want a $15 meal but they want it for $2.50.”

One problem he faces is simple media portrayals of the school lunch.

“Every time you see a school lunch cafeteria on television or in movies, I guarantee you they will be portrayed in a negative fashion,” Vaughn said. “People are indoctrinated against school lunches. We are trying to make them tastier and more nutritious.”

He has a panel of students from different parts of the city who will weigh in on different menu items during the school year starting this fall.

“We know we have a tough job to change perceptions, but we plan to do it,” he said, “and to keep the costs down along the way.”

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