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Vegan lunches could be coming to every LAUSD school next year

Mike Szymanski | December 3, 2017

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Odalis Torres, left, and Carolina Sagrero are fans of the new vegan menu at Roosevelt High.

Carolina Sagrero, 16, is neither vegan nor vegetarian, but she sure likes the new vegan chili that’s joined the Roosevelt High School lunch menu this year.

“Everyone loves the vegan chili,” said Sagrero, a junior on the volleyball team. “It got me thinking about my diet, and so I’ve tried more of the vegan options. There’s a stereotype that it has less flavor, but it’s not true.”

She’s now eating less meat and her mother is shopping for more healthy options for the family at grocery stores in Boyle Heights.

Adding a vegan menu option has proven so successful at LA Unified that the Food Services Division plans to suggest expanding the program to every school in the district by the end of this school year. It would be the first school district in the nation to have a vegan option in every school.

The pilot program started in September by introducing a vegan menu at one school in each of the seven districts. Without too much promotion, some vegan menu items have run out quickly because they are so popular, and students have asked for more options, even if they are not vegans.

The students’ enthusiastic reception has surprised everyone from the head of the food services division through those dishing up the food.

“It is exciting to see that students are trying something different for the first time,” said the district’s Senior Nutrition Specialist Ivy Marx, who has worked as a school dietician for more than 25 years.

Students are choosing a vegan lunch option on average 13 percent of the time, and on some days more than half the students are choosing the vegan option, some preliminary district data show.

In some areas of the district, the students like the tamale, even though it’s not like the ones they’re used to getting at home, Marx said. In other parts of the district, the vegan teriyaki burger is a favorite.  

Food Services Director Joseph Vaughn said he is committed to supporting the vegan pilot program and to its expansion — without increasing the food services budget, which he has been mandated to rein in. He now plans to “begin a strategic rollout of the vegan option” starting in January to 35 additional elementary, middle and high schools. Food Services will collaboratively work with local district to identify the 35 schools.

A total of 31,204 vegan entrees were dished out during 52 days of the pilot program so far, rotating five menu items. The district plans to increase the menu items to 10. Vaughn noted, “The data clearly shows that a sufficient number of students desire vegan options in addition to the regular lunch menu.”

The vegan pilot idea was championed by former school board president and vegetarian Steve Zimmer, who was voted out of office earlier this year, and sparked by sophomore Lila Copeland, who as an eighth-grader founded the nonprofit Earth Peace Foundation to push for vegan school lunches.

“We are thrilled with the reaction to the pilot and that most of the kids trying the new lunches were not vegan or vegetarian,” Lila said after a recent meeting with the Food Services division. “We think more kids will now choose a healthy lunch option.”

That’s what happened to 17-year-old Odalis Torres at Roosevelt High who is no longer eating meat after learning about healthy food choices in a health class at school. She said she got two football players to try some of the vegan options at lunch.

“They were hesitant at first, but I got them to try it, and they liked it,” Torres said.

Zitlali Sanchez, a junior, has been encouraging her friends to try some of the new vegan options at lunch.

“If they try it at school, then they may be eventually changing their habits at home too, and maybe even getting the whole family to eat more healthy,” the 16-year-old said.

Roosevelt’s café manager, Kiki Tarrant, hasn’t seen such excitement about a menu change in her seven years in the position. In the pilot program’s first week at her school, she ran out of the 500 servings of vegan dishes.

“I’ve needed two times what we had,” Tarrant said. “They are asking for vegan now. Students are paying more attention to what they eat.”

Amanda Copeland, Lila’s mother, said, “It is wonderful that students are understanding the awareness and literacy toward healthy eating, the environment, and agriculture, but there may be some push-back from meat and milk lobbies against this. The next step is to do this at a state level.”

Lila has met with state and national leaders involved with student lunches who say they are making progress in getting California Assembly leaders interested in legislation that would introduce a vegan option statewide.

“By the time Lila graduates from high school, it may be in all of LA Unified, and by the time she graduates college, maybe it will be statewide,” Copeland said. “Eventually, we will see that the students are getting healthier because these options are available to them.”

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