A menu not fit for the masses

la school

Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is a world unto itself. First, there’s the district’s sheer size: nearly three-quarters of a million students, more than 1,300 schools and centers, and a $7.5 billion total annual budget. Plus, it serves a student body with highly varied socioeconomic, ethnic and racial backgrounds living across 710 square miles.

So implementing new districtwide projects is not only time-consuming and costly, but also requires buy-in from an incredibly large and diverse student mix. But LAUSD’s foodservice team is undaunted, frequently rolling out new food projects including a new vegan menu pilot program.

“I mean, this is LA. There’s quite a few schools where many families are vegan,” says Manish Singh, LAUSD Food Services’ North West regional manager. “And then you have other kids who say, ‘Vegan? What does that mean?’ So it’s an interesting challenge.”

Implementing Change

vegan meal

The vegan program is rolling out to all LAUSD schools at a pace of seven schools monthly, and it currently runs on a one-week menu cycle. Lunches are chili on Monday, teriyaki veggie patty sandwiches on Tuesday, bean tamales on Wednesday, vegan sausage subs on Thursday and vegan burgers on Friday.

It all began in July 2016 during a headline-grabbing, “only-in-LA” board meeting at LAUSD. A group of students brought vegan activists including Pamela Anderson—whose children attended nearby Malibu schools—to speak about the value of daily vegan menu options.
“Clearly, the kids wanted this option and we were happy to provide it,” says Joseph Vaughn, LAUSD’s director of Food Services. “People ask us all the time if the vegan menu is about being more healthy, but the answer is no—we’re serving meals to all students that are healthy. This pilot is about giving kids what they want.”

Student tastes have been the driver of the vegan pilot from the beginning. And they’ve also been the key to its success, according to Vaughn and Singh.

“We test any product before we put it on a menu, because given the size of our district, it doesn’t make sense to implement things unless most students love it,” Singh says. “We had students taste test and tell us if they liked it or they didn’t. To make it onto the menu, an item needed an 80% approval score, and that’s standard for all of our menus.”

After setting the menu based on those approval scores, the foodservice staffers started implementation. They started small, with only seven schools, to gauge interest in the vegan menu. They were happily surprised by a 13% participation rate, which encouraged them to continue the rollout. By the end of the 2017-2018 school year, 42 LAUSD schools will offer the daily vegan options, with more to come in 2018-2019. 

Making Vegan Work for Everyone

vegetarian chili

Beyond the constant focus on students’ tastes, Singh credits a “hands-on” marketing campaign for the high participation rates: “We made announcements, handed out little menus, hung banners, and just generally did all we could to get the word out that these vegan items were coming.”

But the success wasn’t necessarily overnight, he cautions, recommending that other operators exercise patience when trying something new.
“Whether it’s a vegan menu or otherwise, we find that people, especially students, might not want to try something new the first few days it’s available,” Singh says. “They stick with their habits at first. But we generally found it normalizes after two weeks. That can feel like a long time, so you’ve got to be ready for that.”

LAUSD Food Service also gets support from its own personal mascot: Cafe LA Ray, a ball of sunshine with a sun head, sunglasses, cape, and superhero outfit (see Page 7 for more on Ray). He visits the district’s classrooms and cafeterias to talk to students about eating well and staying fit, aligning with the foodservice division’s goals in a way that’s compelling to kids.

“If Cafe LA Ray is doing it, it’s cool, and that’s what they want to do too,” says Vaughn, laughing. “And that’s what it’s all about: Make it fun, make it what your diners want, and you can’t go wrong.”

Meet the FSD: Joseph Vaughn

Joseph Vaughn

Director of Food Services, Los Angeles Unified School District

Q: What are your goals for the coming year?
A: Our core goal is to continue to roll out our hot supper program. We began in January and are introducing it at a pace of 12 schools per week. We’re really proud of this program. Once it’s fully rolled out, it will double our supper participation.

Q: What’s the key to success with new dining programs?
A: I’ve got fantastic leadership, especially in my six regional managers. Each region has 150 schools or more, with 100,000-plus students. Our district is beyond large, which means you need people in each area making sure everything is running smoothly. I’m thankful that we have that great foundation of people, because it means the sky is the limit for what we can do.

At a Glance: Los Angeles Unified School District

  • Students: 714,000
  • Meals served daily: breakfast, lunch and supper: 755,000
  • Schools and centers in 
the district: 1,306
  • Foodservice employees: 3,800+
  • Second-largest school district in the nation
  • Rolling out a hot supper program that will be in all schools by the end of 2018

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