Last May, The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) approved a pilot program to introduce vegan meals to schools at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year. The district, who was already participating in a ‘Meatless Monday’ program and also recently switched to healthier antibiotic/hormone free meats, took another step forward in offering healthier meals thanks to the help of student activists from Earth Peace Foundation and a little star power from former Baywatch actress Pamela Anderson.
After much research (and taste testing) the program launched in seven Los Angeles High Schools on September 5th, featuring a week-long menu of Vegan Chili, a Teriyaki Veggie Patty Sandwich, a Bean Tamale, and a ‘Range-Free’ Veggie Burger and Italian Sausage Sub made by Missouri based Hungry Planet.
Of course rolling out any new program in the 2nd largest school district in the country comes with its own unique set of challenges and hurdles; but in my recent conversation with LAUSD’s Food Services Director Mr. Joseph Vaughn I learned that both students and administration are excited about the healthier options and the program has already gotten off to a good start.
Here’s an interview I gave to Mr. Vaughn during the 2nd week of the program roll out. Feel free to leave additional questions and comments below:
Compared to other school districts, how do the needs or demands of the LAUSD school base differ? Do they provide any unique challenges, or what have you found different about this school district that you’ve had to tackle?
I do see that people out here appear to be more health conscious; in other words, in Cleveland and Alabama, I didn’t have many people asking for vegan food. I believe it has to do with the beautiful weather out here.
As far as unique challenge here in Los Angeles, it’s just the sheer size of the district. The number one thing that’s constantly on my mind when we’re looking at anything new is “how are we going to be able to roll it out?” You also have to consider “how long is it going to take?” and “are we going to be able to have a supplier to supply what we need?” There are a lot of logistics involved.
With that in mind, what are some of the unique benefits or lessons that you’ve learned while developing this program?
One of the benefits we’ve gotten from this roll out is a lot of publicity. We’ve got people calling us from all over the country. We’ve got people calling us from Washington DC, New York, Dallas, and people from all different places and organizations – and everyone seems to have a different opinion on the subject.
But here’s the thing, the reason we are doing this vegan pilot is because we had some students approach us, asked for it and expressed the need for it, and we looked into it and came to the conclusion that “yes, there is a certain population that is interested in it and we want to offer them that choice.” We’re offering a vegan pilot to give our students a choice. We are not pushing any particular group’s agenda. We are strictly doing this to give our students the options they want.
So, how are the new vegan menu items doing with the students?
The least that we’ve sold is 11% of our total entrees in the school with the most being 23% (UPDATE 10/11, this number has averaged out to about 15% of total entrees sold being vegan), and we’re very very pleased with that. Providing these healthy choices for students is something that our board is very adamant about, so we’re happy we are feeding 1 or 2 out of 10 students that may not have had that option before.
We started working on the menu we have last September, so it’s taken us about a year to create a week’s worth of a menu. Honestly, even though people say that vegan food is readily available, the price can be extremely high and there’s just not a lot of companies ready to take on the volume that the LAUSD would need if we expanded the program. So we’ve spent a lot of time to make sure that we have the best quality items we could have – something the kids would like, even the non-vegans. We’ve found some top quality products, and I’m very pleased with what we have. We’re still working on the menu, and looking to expand it to a 2-week menu cycle.
The products are really good, and we have a Vegan Chili, Teriyaki Patty, Tamale, Italian Sausage Sub, and a “Range-Free” Burger. The latter two (the sausage and burger) are made by a company called Hungry Planet, and I encourage you to look them up because that burger that we are serving is being served by several restaurants here in town at over $20 a plate.
Wow, that’s better than what I eat in a week – and I am a vegan food blogger!
I’ve got to tell you, we’ve got seven high schools in the program, one high-school to represent each board district in the LAUSD, so it’s all over the city and it’s doing well everywhere.
If you look at the country’s national average of people buying vegan, and the percentage of vegan meals we’ve been selling, you can see that we’re well above the national average.
We believe the program will be successful.
This is great, it sounds like you guys have some great items on the menu. How did the chefs and creative minds decide on what recipes and ingredients would go into the new vegan menu when you were developing this program?
Quite frankly, getting on Google and finding out what was out there. Also, talking to our suppliers and vendors and finding out what was available, and once we decided on what we wanted to try we brought them in for a trial.
We have at least seven dietitians on our staff, so we had the products brought in and we did a lot of taste testing over the course of the last year, and when we found some items we thought might do well, we took them out to the schools and tried them out with the kids.
It was sort of trial and error, until we found we wanted to start the pilot with and knew that the vendors could work with us and keep up with the demand.
What does the future of the program look like in the LAUSD? What is the end goal as far as rolling out the program to other schools and students?
We chose to start this pilot with high school students because we wanted an apples-to-apples comparison. We’re also rolling out another program in our schools right now, a Hot Suppers program. We successfully piloted that program last year, and currently have 191 schools on the Hot Supper program and are rolling it out to 12 additional schools weekly, starting this year.
So we’re busy rolling out that program, and didn’t want to take on too much. We wanted to be able to have a true sampling, so we chose to keep this program small and hand-picked seven high schools so we could get like comments.
We are expected to get the data from our high schools and report back within 90 days, and we will expand it based on how the board and superintendent expects us to. But based on how the program is doing so far, we fully expect it to be positive.
And the roll out after that will not be specific to high-school; the intent is to roll it out accordingly to all schools and different ages across the LAUSD, in a pace that we can manage.
We are still looking at our menu, and hoping to develop a two week cycle. That’s the goal by the end of this pilot, to have a two week cycle menu to offer the students throughout all of our schools.