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Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is the second-largest district in the United States, serving breakfast and lunch in more than 1,200 schools daily. Since the early 2000s they have been creating a healthy food culture that teaches students about healthy eating and introduces them to many new foods, while embracing federal nutritional standards as they improve over time. LAUSD has banned soda and junk food from campus, removed flavored milks, and brought healthy breakfasts to the classroom. A recent accomplishment, pushed by LAUSD Director of Food Services David Binkle and other school leaders, is removing what they call “kid food” from their cafeterias—instead serving healthy meals with flavors and ingredients from a variety of cultures and backgrounds—including “meatless Mondays” to introduce students to more vegetable options.
Awareness: Leaders of LAUSD, which has a student population that is 72.3% Latino, are constantly looking for new ways to incorporate healthy changes into the food culture in their school and introduce their students to healthy ways of living from an early age.
David Binkle, LAUSD’s director of food services, is driving many of these changes.
Over time, he’s helped generate policies that ban sodas and flavored milk from cafeterias, and eliminated unhealthy snacks and junk food from vending machines and school stores. These efforts removed unhealthy snacks and other competitively sold foods and replaced them with healthier options.
He said he liked improving the “snack” culture of the school, but more change was needed.
Students were still eating meals that consisted of chicken nuggets, pizza, and peanut butter jelly sandwiches—and Binkle felt that this wasn’t preparing them for the future of trying new meals and making healthy choices.
Learn: In 2010, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFK Act) changes throughout the nation, Binkle began to see a trend of schools creating “healthy” versions of unhealthy foods, like whole-wheat pizza or baked chicken nuggets, which despite being a healthier choice for students was still not teaching them how to make healthy choices. He felt like students were getting “kid food,” or food that adults thought they liked but not food that prepared them for healthy eating as adults.
He knew that he wanted to take the LAUSD lunch program in a different direction.
Frame Issue: Binkle began to plan how he could change the meals being served in schools so that students were introduced to a larger variety of foods, vegetables, fruit, and different types of foods.
Education: Binkle decided to do taste tests with students in the cafeteria to introduce them to new foods, and to find out what healthier options would also be popular, too. He wanted to show kids that they could eat and enjoy all different types of foods, and weren’t restricted to kid food, junk food, or fast food.
This involvement of the students meant that they were introduced to foods before they appeared in the lunch menu, and helped shape their ideas of what school lunch could be.
Mobilization: Binkle also began to work with the LAUSD School Board to develop ideas about how to implement new recipes and dishes into the cafeteria.
He knew their support was needed because the board is responsible for some decisions because of the contracts made with their food providers.
Debate: Binkle thought about why schools serve students a healthy version of an unhealthy meal and what is that teaching them about making healthy choices. Why not feed them foods they’ll want to eat for a long time and will give them the correct nutrition without imitating another food?
Binkle knew that there would need to be big changes in the school menu, incorporating more fruits, vegetables, less-processed foods, and meals from all different cultures.
For example, Binkle said the school board decided to end its large contract with Smuckers, which provided LAUSD with “Uncrustables,” a premade peanut butter and jelly sandwich with no crusts. Despite being among Smuckers’ top school district customers, Binkle had to tell them that their school is no longer serving their product because of its high amounts of sodium and sugar.
Activation: Binkle had a close relationship with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who prioritized efforts to raise awareness about health and nutrition. The city has been embracing a culture of healthy living and eating for a long time, and this had begun being reflected within the LA Unified School District, Binkle said.
As Binkle continued to push for healthier meal options for students, Garcetti and the City Council voted in November 2012 to endorse “Meatless Mondays.” Meatless Monday, a commitment to not eating animal meat on Mondays to support animal welfare and increase vegetable consumption, is a movement supported by many chefs like Jaime Oliver.
When Meatless Mondays began being installed in restaurants and stores, Binkle knew he wanted the LAUSD to support the city and mayor by incorporating this healthy day into their school week, in addition to the healthier lunch options.
Frame Policy: Binkle thus pushed for a two-pronged policy:
- Eliminate “kid food” items from the menu (chicken nuggets, pizza, and hot dogs, etc.);
- Create a menu with more variety, healthier meals, recipes from all different cultures
By serving meals that would be familiar to different cultural backgrounds of students, were full of flavor, mostly cooked fresh, and offered a variety unlike typical kid food, Binkle and the cafeteria staff hoped to open the minds of students to try more new foods and learn lifelong lessons in healthy eating.
He also wanted to incorporate Meatless Mondays.
Change: Binkle and the school board collected recipes, planned the new menu, and chose new vendors.
According to the district, the resolution calls for improving the appeal of school meals as students are introduced to different foods; increasing access to fresh produce through salad bars and the use of vegetables from school gardens and local farms; providing more education about nutrition; at least 20 minutes to eat lunch; and establishing an even stronger working partnership with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health in the fight to reduce childhood obesity.
Watch a video about the change from school board member Steve Zimmer.
“Board member Steve Zimmer, who co-sponsored the resolution with President Monica Garcia, said the district needed to continue pushing forward on the issue, noting that healthful eating is linked to academic achievement and that some students rely on school meals for most of their daily nutrition,” according to an L.A. Times article.
Meatless Mondays were planned and mapped out in Fall 2012.
The school board voted to adopt Meatless Mondays in March 2013.
Implementation: In September 2012, LAUSD stopped serving “kid foods” like pizza, cereal, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, steak fingers, French fries, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, tater tots, macaroni and cheese, and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Instead they serve meals with more flavors from different cultures and with greater variety, such as: fresh fruit, brown rice bowls, teriyaki chicken, turkey sandwiches, natural baked potato wedges, roasted fingerling potatoes, chicken chipotle salad, curried chicken, enchiladas, tamales, sushi, Chinese food, mixed salads and black bean rice bowls.
Many of these dishes are familiar to students with different cultural backgrounds.
A month before the official vote in March 2013, students had started going meatless each Monday. District cafeterias serve dishes with no animal proteins, like chicken or beef, and instead serve dishes like cheese enchiladas, vegetarian lasagna, roasted veggie sandwiches, garden burgers, lard/animal fat-free tamales, Asian vegetable stir-frys, and Southwestern corn and black bean rice bowls—their most popular dish in all schools.
These dishes follow the same sodium, fat, and caloric standards that the rest of the meals follow according to the HHFK Act, Binkle said.
Equity: Students in LAUSD love the new menu, and lunch sales have greatly increased, Binkle said.
In 2012, Binkle budgeted for the district to serve about 109 million meals, but instead they ended up serving 115 million. He finds that they get far less complaints about what is being served and how it tastes to students, and observes that students are eating most of the food given to them for lunch.
Meatless Mondays also are a success, given that students are opening up more to healthy eating, and many students already are vegetarian or vegan, Binkle said.
Since the implementation of healthy meals and Meatless Mondays, LAUSD has also implemented salad bars into schools that have the space in the cafeteria and storage capabilities, and hope to continue installing more. These salad bars are part of their goal to give students more choice in what fruits and vegetables they eat for lunch—and, by letting students pick their favorite produce, Binkle hopes to decrease food waste.
Sustainability: In the future, Binkle and LAUSD hope to continue creating a healthy environment for students by implementing polices that remove added sugars, additives, and preservatives in foods. Binkle finds that many foods have extra sugar or food dye that has been added for appearance only, which does teach students what the whole food tastes like. By removing these ingredients, and only using natural sweeteners like stevia, Binkle hopes to provide students with more fresh foods and create lifelong healthy eating habits in young students.
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
Salud America! The RWJF Research Network to Prevent Obesity Among Latino Children is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The program aims to educate researchers, decision-makers, community leaders, and the public in contributing toward healthier Latino communities and seeking environmental and policy solutions to the epidemic of Latino childhood obesity. The network is directed by the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
For more information, visit http://www.salud-america.org.
By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.