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LAUSD winning its food fight: $50 million-a-year drain on general budget by food services is getting plugged

Mike Szymanski | June 6, 2017

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A $50 million-a-year drain on the general budget by LA Unified’s food services, which was identified as a significant contributor to the district’s budget deficits, is on its way to being eradicated by the new director who has been on the job less than a year.

Joseph Vaughn, who was hired last August from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, announced at a committee meeting Tuesday that not only has the food program will not need additional money from the budget this year or next year. He said the food program is on its way to becoming self sustaining, and may even add money to the classroom at some point. 

“I want to announce for the first time in many, many years that we will require no general fund support this year, and won’t receive any next year as well,” Vaughn told the board. Although, he later said in an interview that there still will be an encroachment on the general fund by $5 million next year and $24.2 million in 2019-2020. He is working toward making the food program completely self-sustaining.

Joseph Vaughn, LAUSD’s food services director.

How is he doing it? Introducing chocolate milk back onto the school menu helped increase participation in lunches again, and so did serious monitoring of the Breakfast in the Classroom program, intensive retraining of staff, and eliminating food waste in school cafeterias, Vaughn said at the Budget, Facilities and Audit Committee.

They are also treating every class site as its own restaurant so they don’t over-order and instead cater to the likes of each room.

“We have had an outstanding year,” Vaughn told the committee. “Food services has a wonderful staff, I wish I had them for the last 20 years.”

Strategies to reduce waste and an educational campaign in the schools helped increase by 4 million the school meals served even as enrollment is decreasing, Vaughn said. He noted that through April of this year, the district earned $15.9 million more in sales than last year and spent $1.3 million less to serve the meals.

This was one of the key points brought up by the Independent Financial Review Panel that urged an end to the food services program’s $50 million drain on the general budget. The report said the program needed to become self-sustaining and noted that most other school food programs in the nation operate within the revenues they generate. But LA Unified’s food program, which serves 127.8 million meals at 1,100 locations each year, also has innovative and more costly programs like a vegan food option pilot program approved at the last school board meeting and exclusively serving antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken and turkey.

The three school board members on the committee said they were surprised by Tuesday’s announcement.

“I’m shocked and impressed to hear that news,” said George McKenna, the board’s vice president. “The food program was supposed to be self-sustaining, and for whatever reason that disappeared and the general fund was subsidizing it because of waste or inefficiency. You haven’t been here but a hot minute, and look at the remarkable outcome you gave us. I thank you on behalf of the kids and this organizational structure.”

Committee chairwoman Mónica Ratliff, who is leaving the school board at the end of the month, said, “I agree that I did not think I would see the day that even with chocolate milk the food services program would be self-sustaining. You brought with you some real desire to make a change here and have done an amazing job.”

Board member Ref Rodriguez said he remains impressed with the menu choices and the responses that youth leadership groups have given to the food services team and encouraged more communication with students. Vaughn said he is trying to make it easier to offer them feedback.

Vaughn said he gave managers targeted goals, meets with managers every Monday, and encourages suggestions. “We discuss what we did the week before and we keep a focus on our financing,” he said. “We don’t want our children’s nutrition to take any money from the classroom. If anything, we want to put money back.”

Dawn Soto, a senior Food Services training specialist, said a few new programs have reduced a lot of waste that once was the equivalent weight of 200 elephants a week in the district.

“We are treating every classroom like a little mini restaurant,” Soto said.

In the past year, food services trained 536 teachers on how to teach children about nutrition and to select their food and eat everything they take. They have a program allowing students to save food for later with a cartoon called “Save it for later, Alligator.” Soto noted that milk was still the most discarded item.

During public comment, former school board member David Tokofsky said he remembered when food services in 1992 had a surplus and suggested that the charter schools could also take advantage of the school food programs. At the moment, more than 2,800 students at 11 of the 211 independent charter schools in the district use the LA Unified food services.

Ratliff suggested that the board probe whether test scores improved at schools that participate in the Breakfast in the Classroom program. All district schools, except the 32 schools where less than 20 percent of the students fall below the poverty level, participate in the breakfast program. All district schools have a nutrition program, however.

Ratliff then added, “There is a constant need to improve the taste, so I hear.”

Vaughn responded, “One thing about food is that everyone has an opinion.”

* Vaughn notes that the Food Services division is not yet completely self-sustaining, and that there still will be an encroachment on the general fund by $5 million next year and $24.2 million in 2019-2020.

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