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Student activists fear that LA Unified’s vegan pilot program may just wither away

Mike Szymanski | July 20, 2017

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

It was one of the most uncomfortably dramatic moments at any LA Unified School Board meeting in recent memory — maybe the oddest of any in the country this year.

Flanked by her friends, 15-year-old Lila Copeland stood in silence for a minute and a half at the tail end of a nearly 10-hour board meeting. She was begging for an answer by any of the seven school board members to step up as the point person for her student-run group.

They want to put some bite into the vegan options pilot program being launched this fall at LA Unified. The students want to be actively involved in marketing the vegan pilot at the schools, and because one of their prime supporters was voted out of office, they fear that a lack of interest by the new board may cause the pilot to die on the vine.

They had hoped for a new ally on the board. They got nothing.

Lila Copeland initiated the vegan pilot, with a happy pig. (Courtesy Earth Peace)

“We are afraid this vegan pilot is being set up to fail,” said Lila after the meeting. “We don’t think there’s a commitment to do it anymore.”

Tall, thin, and blonde, the Palisades Charter High School 10th grader easily could be viewed as a typical California girl, but she has studied science, law, and politics and networked with experts worldwide for this quest. “I want to help my classmates have healthy options to eat food that won’t cause obesity, heart disease, or diabetes,” she said.

A strong athlete, she dished up anecdotes and statistics to the school board about how she gets her protein in her diet, and how the district can save money by offering vegan options. She hasn’t had dairy since age 2, no eggs for more than five years and has never eaten meat. “I am a competitive runner, two-time All American nationally, ranked 11th in the nation for long distance and the California Interscholastic Federation champion in my division in Los Angeles,” Lila said.

But, there are detractors, such as the Meat Matters Campaign that is closely monitoring Lila’s movement, and already sent letters of concern about the program to LAUSD.

The silent treatment given by the board to the students at the June meeting went viral over social media and enraged more students. Her supporters have swelled from a dozen girls to more than 300 students from throughout the district.

And, they have boys, now like junior class president Kevin Patel from Santee Education Complex, who came to speak at the first meeting of the new school board in July.

Another Santee student, Stephanie Yescas, 16, spoke up, too, saying to the board, “I watched as you stared us down. It was uncomfortable and wrong for students who worked so hard to get this done.”

Eleven students spoke —at least one from every corner of the 710 miles of the district — and they asked that the board continue supporting the vegan pilot program that the district approved this year. Their teary-eyed speeches were followed by a disheveled guy with an animal hand puppet who wasn’t connected to their cause. He made grunts and bodily noises during the meeting.

Lila Copeland and Pamela Anderson

“The kids are worried that they are not being taken seriously, and they are feeling shut out,” said Amanda Copeland, Lila’s mother who is nursing a hurt foot and still stayed with her daughter in the heat outside before the school board meeting in a wheelchair. “They were treated very unfairly by a board that claims they put kids first.”

Lila has brought in a smorgasbord of internationally renowned vegan activists, most notably a late-night appearance by “Baywatch” superstar Pamela Anderson. There was the three-time world record-breaking vegan marathoner Fiona Louise Oakes who flew in from England, vegan chef Babette Davis, social media star Tim “VeganFatKid” Moore, best-selling author and health expert Neal Barnard, and Cedars-Sinai doctor Jay Gordon. Speakers also included TV journalist Jane Velez-Mitchell, 10-year-old actress Felix Hemstreet, and Torre Washington, who bills himself as “a professional vegan bodybuilder.”

Their previous champion on the school board, Steve Zimmer, who is vegetarian himself, was unseated by Nick Melvoin. The students said they tried meeting with Melvoin and contacted all the other board members to help with their cause, but were turned down.

“We have expressed concerns that they will not be offering good options and that this pilot is doomed to failure,” Lila said. “We have a stake in making this a success.”

Zion Flores of USC, former school board president Steve Zimmer, Bahar Ghandahari of Van Nuys High School and Lila Copeland of Palisades Charter High

The students did meet with new Food Services Division Director Joseph Vaughn, but they felt they got a lukewarm reception. The students hoped to help market the vegan options on campuses where the pilot programs were being launched, and they wanted to help the district with cheaper, tastier vegan dishes.

Vaughn told LA School Report it is important for the pilot program to pick random schools to monitor the program’s success. The schools will be picked in August and the program will begin Sept. 5 and run for 90 days. He must get permission slips from every parent who wants a plant-based milk substitute as an option. And, he wanted the least amount of disruptions on the campuses — so no student advocacy.

“I’m very excited about the vegan pilot and I expect it to be a success, I really want it to work,” Vaughn said. “We don’t want to skew the data, but we expect it to be successful like all of our other pilot programs have been.”

LA Unified has led the nation with some of their food services pilots, such as serving antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken and turkey, and now re-introducing low-sugar flavored milk into all schools after a short pilot program proved that students were buying more lunches because of it. The district is the largest in the nation serving breakfasts to all the students. They finished a successful supper pilot and this year will launch after school meals in every Title I school. Since 2013, all schools have a “Meatless Monday” program.

“There are some challenges, [the vegan program] could be more expensive, because the milk substitutes of soy and almond milk are 40 cents more a carton,” said Vaughn, who has been on the job for nearly a year and is trying to make the food program self-sustaining. “But we want to make it work.”

Meanwhile, Lila and her friends have flooded the school board members with 271 emails, and they are a third of their way in a $25,000 crowd-source fundraiser. The next goal is to take the program statewide and then nationally, Lila said.

Lila started the Earth Peace Foundation which she describes as a mom-and-pop outfit except there’s no pop. “Me and my mom fund this out of our own pocket,” Lila said.

Her mother said, “I’m so proud of how far we’ve come in the two years that Lila has devoted to this, and we will keep coming back to make sure this board listens to the students and hears their concerns.”

Lila has a photo of her posted on her web page with a giant pig.

“No animal wants to die to become our food,” Lila said. “We want kids to know that they can chose healthy vegan options that are not bland. We want to make this work.”

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