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LAUSD turns up the heat on the national chicken industry

Mike Szymanski | March 10, 2016

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Steve Zimmer at Mosk Elementary School.

LA Unified is making no bones about wanting to change the chicken industry, and federal officials visiting the district Thursday say they’re on their way to doing it.

LA Unified became the first large school district in the nation to contract for antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken and turkey in a vote Tuesday. On Thursday, visiting dignitaries from the U.S. Department of Agriculture said that such a bold move could have a direct effect on the way poultry is handled in the country.

“The district uses their leverage because of their great volume, and other districts take a look at what they’re doing, and that is how things get changed,” said Kevin Concannon, Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services. “It takes leadership to make this happen.”

The leadership came from school board president Steve Zimmer, who is seeing the culmination of more than two years of work since getting the Good Food Procurement resolution passed that supports local farmers and local economies and seeks alternatives to foods that are genetically modified or hormone-filled.

“We are trying to change the industry,” Zimmer told LA School Report after a meeting at Stanley Mosk Elementary School with the undersecretary about expanding free lunches in the district. “We have the courage to make this investment, and then the rest of the nation will follow and eventually the industry-wide expectation is that it will be hormone free and antibiotic free.”

The cost will be higher, in fact about 67 percent higher, than the chicken the district has purchased in the past from Tyson Foods, said Laura Benavidez, interim Food Service Division deputy co-director. The new contract is with Gold Star Foods from Perdue Farms in Ontario, Calif.

“The cost will become less and less of an issue as more districts join us,” Zimmer said.

Tyson Foods spokesman Gary Mickelson said in a statement that the company was the first to qualify for the Certified Responsible Antibiotic Use certification from the USDA, and added, “In addition, we announced that we’re striving to eliminate the use of human antibiotics from our U.S. broiler chicken flocks by the end of September 2017, and we plan to annually report on our progress.”

LA Unified serves 700,000 meals a day, which include favorites like chicken teriyaki and chicken drumsticks. Over the past decade, the school board required more nutritious meals with less fat, salt and sugar, plus additional servings of fresh fruits, vegetables and more meat-free options, such as Meatless Mondays, which is part of the school menu. Chocolate and other flavored milks have been replaced by low-fat or nonfat milk, and sodas and junk food are no longer for sale at schools.

“The passing of the resolution shows the bold steps this school district is taking to ensure the health and wellness of students,” Benavidez said. “Providing the best possible, highest-quality food for students shouldn’t be a privilege, it should be a right.”

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, student board member Leon Popa said that he learned in school about Tyson products and was concerned about the antibiotics. “What I learned in school was really horrendous, and the problem continues to grow,” Popa said.

Zimmer noted that he has heard similar feedback from high school students who want to know where their food is coming from. “We have to be far, far, far more nutritiously aware at school, so when they go home they can say something if all they have is access to hormone- and antibiotic-pumped meats.”

Zimmer said, “Chicken is the first frontier, and we are looking to change this. We are looking to leverage our power as the largest public sector procurer to make sure that we’re changing not only the school food industry, but the poultry industry as a whole.”

What’s next? Zimmer said, “I worry about beef, but not nearly as much as poultry.”

And Zimmer said he is not concerned about putting some companies out of business. He said, “If Netflix didn’t knock down Blockbuster, there would be no ‘House of Cards.’”

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