Taking on Goliath

By Becky Schilling, Editor

In a district as large as Los Angeles, making even the smallest change can prove to be a daunting challenge.

At A Glance: Los Angeles USD

•With 692,000 students in 655 schools, it is the nation's second largest district

•Executive chef Mark Baida has created the Chef's Signature Series

•Instead of raising meal prices, the district is renogotiating contracts and increasing efficiency to cut costs

•The district is renovating its secondary schools to be self-service, which has increased participation more than 7%


As the saying goes, you can’t turn a battleship on a dime. That is especially true when you try to make changes in the foodservice department at the nation’s second FoodService Director, Los Angeles USD, Chef's Signature Serieslargest school district, Los Angeles Unified. With 692,000 students and 655 schools located in a 710-square mile radius, trying to do something such as implementing a computerized POS system is a daunting endeavor. But that’s exactly what is happening.

Since coming to LAUSD in January 2007, Dennis Barrett, foodservice director, has begun the challenging task of updating the foodservice department. That has included bringing in new faces, such as David Binkle in early 2008 as deputy director, and Mark Baida as executive chef in late 2007. It has also included renovating the district’s 136 secondary schools in a modernization project, creating new menus that excite students to dine in the schools’ cafeterias and fighting childhood obesity through education.

Those tasks have fallen to Laura Benavidez and David Binkle, deputy directors of foodservice, along with 5,700 other foodservice employees. They are trying to continue with the department’s upgrades in the middle of a financial crisis that could lead to a $10 million deficit in state-funded meal reimbursements if something doesn’t happen soon to fill the state’s depleted coffers. Even with all the challenges facing them, Benavidez and Binkle are confidently, and cautiously, moving forward with the plans.

Reworking menus: In August 2007 Mark Baida was hired as executive chef. “We stole him away from the University of Southern California where he was the executive chef,” Benavidez says. “He’s come in and done some amazing things like the Chef’s Signature Series for our secondary schools and he’s changing our menus altogether all while staying within our regular budget.”

The Chef’s Signature Series is a collection of 11 new menu items that Benavidez says more closely resembles something found on a restaurant menu than in a school cafeteria. Each month during the 2008-2009 school year, a new item from the series has been introduced. Items from the collection include a chicken Italiano melt, chicken cacciatore and a spicy Tex-Mex veggie burrito. All of the items meet not only the district’s strict nutritional standards, but also the critical taste buds of the students.

“The students have been responding very favorably to the Chef’s Signature Series,” Binkle says. “I think that in the past they weren’t really treated as customers and there’s been a real focus on trying to get feedback from them.” To say that the department has stepped up efforts to get more student feedback is an understatement. During the 2006-2007 school year, no student taste testing of food items was done. In just one year, that has changed so that 750 students tested 85 items in the 2007-2008 school year. For a new item to make it onto the menu, a minimum of 75% of students testing the item must respond favorably.

The student testing will expand, yet again, this year following a renovation at the Newman Nutrition Center, the district’s central production facility. The center provides meals for more than 200 locations and is the largest school meal production center in the country. According to Binkle, a space is being constructed so that daily student tours and taste tasting can be done, which would provide the district with even more information. That in turn, it is hoped, will increase participation even more than it already has.

 “Last year in the 2007-2008 school year, we had a 6 million meal increase in participation over the 2006-2007 school year,” Binkle says. “Prior to Dennis getting here in 2006-2007, they had an actual 5% decrease in participation in the 2005-2006 school year. It looks like this year we are already approaching 5 million meals over last year in participation. And in talking with students, tha change is because they feel like they are being treated like customers and they feel that the quality of the food has gotten better.”  When many districts are adding more and more entrées to their menus, LAUSD has actually done the exact opposite and to great success. In 2006, there were 15 daily entrées. The following year that number decreased to seven, and now it’s five. “We’ve actually decreased the amount of entrées on the daily menu, so now the mangers have more time to consistently prepare two or three items as opposed to five, 10 or 15 items,” Binkle says.  

Saving money: Binkle says raising prices for school meals is not the answer to combat rising costs of food, fuel and labor. Instead, Binkle has pared down expenses with an almost razor-like precision. Oftentimes, this means taking a hard stance with suppliers and standing firm when negotiating bids. “We had a company in here this week and we are their largest account naFoodService Director, Los Angeles USD, Chef's Signature Seriestionwide,” he says. “They were requesting a 1 cent price increase per serving, which would have turned out to be $4.5 million in additional cost to the district. We actually got them to decrease it by 1 cent, so you’re talking about a $9 million swing there of a company that wanted a price increase and we ended up negotiating it to where there was a penny decrease.” When this negotiating prowess is combined with better use of inventory and standardized menus, LAUSD actually decreased total food costs by 4% during the 2007-2008 school year. 

Binkle hopes even more money can be saved when 140 additional elementary schools are added to the Newman Nutrition Center’s production schedule.

Renovations and upgrades: Last year the department began renovating its 136 secondary schools to better serve students. So far 47 schools have been completed. The schools are being renovated to a self-serve food court concept. “We go into the schools and look at what equipment we can change or how we can change the layout without going in and doing any kind of demolition,” Benavidez says. The serveries are being remodeled so that there are foour points of service instead of two. One of the new additions is an express line, which offers all of the main three lines’ options, just on a smaller scale. “We don’t restock the express line, so when something is gone, students go to the regular lines,” she says. “The line is about getting kids through faster.”

In addition to increasing the points of service and going to self-serve, the renovated schools are also receiving a facelift in terms of marketing. Signage throughout the servery offers nutrition tidbits and tips for healthy lifestyles. Flat-screen televisions are used as menu boards and color has been added to the walls. “We’ve also trained our staff so that they know what the names are for the menu items and  when a child asks what’s in it, they can tell them. That’s a communicated marketing from our staff to our customers,” Benavidez says.

The main goal of the renovations is to increase participation at the secondary schools. A major hindrance to that is time. “We have a very limited amount of time for our students to eat,” Benavidez says. “In our big schools we have about 3,000 students and they have 30 minutes to eat. So we are doing everything we can to provide as much access to the meals as possible. If that means opening up more lines or windows, then that’s what we have to do.”

So far the renovations seem to be catching the students’ eyes. Breakfast participation has increased about 7% and lunch participation has increased more than 10%.

The district is also in the process of implementing computerized systems for both the front and back of the house, something Benavidez admits is overdue. “We’re antiquated. This will bring us into the 21st century.” Right now the back-of-the-house system is being implemented and inventory and nutrient analysis is being completed. “We’re expecting the back-of-the-house implementation to be done in the next three to six months and then the POS will follow,” Binkle says. “It’s just one of those things that is a long project, especially with the number of sites. We’ve projected to the board that it’s going to be about a $17 million a year return on investment.”

In the next couple of years, LAUSD will also take part in Shaping America’s Health, an organization founded by the American Diabetes Association to help reduce obesity rates in the country. The district has been selected, in part, because of its work to increase nutritional standards of school meals. The LA County Department of Public Health has been tracking childhood obesity statistics since 1999. What the department found, according to Binkle, was that the level of childhood obesity increased between 1999 and 2006, but since 2006, it has leveled and started to decline. “What the Department of Public Health has said is that it’s not a coincidence that the leveling of obesity rates in LA County during the last 24 months correlate with the nutrient value of school meals,” Binkle says. “So Shaping America’s Health is looking at those statistics to say LAUSD is really a model school district that is really helping with obesity rates in the county.”