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LAUSD serves up a taste of vegan menu options after a healthy debate

Mike Szymanski | May 11, 2017

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Vegan activists from throughout the world come to say their beef to LAUSD.

Always with an appetite for dishing up something new for school meals, LA Unified’s school board unanimously approved a pilot program to test vegan options on their school menus.

At least one school in each of the seven regional districts will get their first taste of a non-animal-based school lunch, and the program is being prepared for this August. Vegan activists see interest across the country heating up for similar programs, and because it’s the second-largest school district in the nation, this could provide a raw recipe for similar programs to duplicate.

Yet even before the pilot program takes off, a few school board members seemed to sour on the idea, especially when it comes to milk, and expressed worry about how the program could slice into the budget. Board member Mónica Ratliff said she was lukewarm about soy products and didn’t see that as a safe substitute for milk. And 76-year-old board member George McKenna said he likes drinking his cow’s milk no matter what the activists said to the board Tuesday night, as they spewed horror stories of bovines having their calves taken away and being over-milked.

“I like my milk and I’m not going to stop drinking it daily no matter what you tell me,” said McKenna, who poured over the vegan-friendly recipes that the activists presented to the board for the district to add to their menu. “There are people who don’t care at all what you care about, and it’s probably a majority.”

The resolution was cooked up by school board President Steve Zimmer, a self-avowed vegetarian, who said he was careful not to foist his eating habits on others but wants to beef up healthy options for students.

“I’m not trying to make everyone vegan, but there is a growing demand for this, and once again our district could lead when it comes to nutrition for our children,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer championed a  resolution last month that trashed some school fundraisers involving fast-food restaurants, and the district became the largest in the country to use only antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken. The district also stirred up a plan to return to flavored milk which could stop waste and save money; it has adopted a voluntary “Meatless Monday” option at schools, and it holds contests with student chefs to whip up palatable and low-cost meals.

“Our breakfast in the classroom program has the highest participation anywhere in the nation, and we have the statistics that may soon show that we have the highest level of supper and lunch participation in the nation,” Zimmer gushed. “What our kids eat matters.”

It will take a bite out of the budget in the long term, especially since soy milk, for example, costs 40 cents a carton more than regular dairy milk, warned Joseph K. Vaughn, the director of the school district’s Food Services Division. Vaughn, who is tasked with hatching the vegan plan within 90 days, said he hoped to launch the pilot program small. He is looking for schools that are enthusiastic about participating. And he noted that the federal government won’t allow him to substitute water or juice to replace milk for every student.

Milking more cheers from the 100-plus activists, Zimmer condemned the dairy lobbyists. “The dairy lobby is strong, we can’t even get water in our schools.” Zimmer also recalled, “There was a time when we banned soda and that was viewed as radical and we had to fight the beverage interests at the time.”

Leading the large herd of cheering vegan supporters was Lila Copeland, 15, from Paul Revere Middle School, who started the Healthy Freedom campaign. She was thrilled after the school board vote, carrying a sign that said “Give Peas a Chance” and said, “We will not stop until we have a full vegan campaign. There are a half-million children in their care, and they have the right to choose foods that won’t make them sick.”

The last time Lila came to the school board she brought “Baywatch” actress Pamela Anderson, who wasn’t there for Tuesday’s vote but sent her regards from France, where she now lives.

But there were plenty of other vegan celebrities such as three-time world record-breaking vegan marathoner Fiona Louise Oakes who flew in from England, vegan chef and restauranteur Babette Davis, social media star Tim “VeganFatKid” Moore, author and health expert Neal Barnard, and Cedars-Sinai doctor Jay Gordon.

Zimmer also presented a letter from a coalition of local clergy asking to support his resolution.

“I think it’s an academic issue because when our kids are healthier they can focus better and achieve the way we know our students can achieve,” Zimmer said.

Student board member Karen Calderon said her vegan friends celebrated the resolution, and she read a letter from a friend who said, “The only thing I could ever eat at the school cafeteria was having a yogurt, and that isn’t vegan. We welcome this finally.”


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