In Partnership with The 74

Nearly half of LAUSD students now eligible for free school lunches thanks to new program

Mike Szymanski | March 10, 2016



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Mikelah Wynn at breakfast with Kevin Concannon.

Mikelah Wynn, 11, looked skeptically at the tall man in the suit who sat down with her and her friends as she opened up her breakfast Thursday morning. The man was Kevin Concannon, USDA Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, who came from Washington, D.C., to her fifth-grade class in Winnetka to celebrate the 50th anniversary of School Breakfast Week and introduce a new program that is getting her free lunch at school.

“I’m interested in what you like and don’t like in your school breakfasts, how is it for you?” asked Concannon.

Holding up her apple, Mikelah declared, “I like the fruit. I like the milk too.”

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Steve Zimmer asks students what they like in their school lunches.

Across the table, her friend Savanna Sadaba, 11, admitted after some prompting, “The breakfast burritos taste a little rubbery.”

Next to her, the school’s student council president, Cindy Estrada, said, “We all like the coffee cake, but it’s not as sweet as it used to be.”

For that she can thank Local District Northwest Superintendent Vivian Ekchian, who was standing behind them and said she helped the district tweak the recipes to comply more with the federal standards for whole grains and sugars. “We have to watch the levels of sugar and nutritional value, but they are still very good,” Ekchian said. “It is so important that every child has breakfast. And every child’s metabolism is different, and if you are hungry it affects your learning.”

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Students take the breakfasts to class.

The national announcement of the federal school food program took place at Stanley Mosk Elementary School in the west San Fernando Valley, where more than 60 percent of students fall into a low-income bracket. Federal, state and local school officials kicked off the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows schools to identify students that could qualify for free meals by referencing other state and federal programs, including CalWORKS, CalFresh, Medicare and other social service programs that already earmark such populations. When more than 40 percent of a school’s population falls into that category, the entire school gets free lunches.

For LA Unified, that means 339 schools and 257,500 students — nearly half the district’s students — will get breakfast and lunch each day at no charge without their parents or guardians having to complete a separate application for free or reduced-price meals. The new program began this month and will continue through the 2018-19 school year. And it will save the school district more than $60 million over the next three years.

“We came here to announce this because LAUSD is the largest district with students affected by this, and they have been innovative and plan to identify more students in their school population with CEP,” Concannon said. “There is a heavy commitment in Congress on both sides to see how this works.”

LA Unified has more students identified than in New York or Chicago.

“This is also for charter, parochial and private schools, they are all eligible,” Concannon said.

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Food Services manager Noemi Verduzco shows her kitchen to Concannon.

He and his U.S. Department of Agriculture entourage were also celebrating 50 years of serving breakfasts in the classroom. Today, nearly 100,000 schools and 15 million students nationwide participate in free breakfasts. Free breakfasts started in earnest at LA Unified in 2012 and are now served to all students. The meals are brought in to each classroom by appointed students pushing wheeled carts, and the leftovers are returned to the cafeteria.

“I have heard from teachers, school nurses and administrators that this has helped with complaints of headaches, stomach aches, restlessness, paying attention, and there’s good socialization and healthy eating,” Concannon said. “It even helps with school attendance.”

School attendance directly impacts the district’s budget, and LA Unified gets about 20 cents for every breakfast served. The free meal programs won’t disrupt the Title 1 status of any school, Concannon said.

“We are hoping that there will be less of a stigma for kids who may be conscious about how they are perceived by others, and whether they are in the free lunch program or not,” Concannon said. “This way, everyone is.”

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Jesus Mendoza, USDA Western regional director, at Mosk Elementary.

The school’s food services manager, Noemi Verduzco, showed the Washington delegation how the students packed the gluten-free choices and milk and juices into their packs to wheel off to the classrooms. “We have made it so that there is a lot less waste and things thrown out than when we first started,” Verduzco said. “We are offering more choices and finding out what they like.”

But it’s still a challenge, according to USDA Western Regional Office administrator Jesus Mendoza, who represents Western states including Alaska.

“California, and LAUSD in particular, has taken the lead, but there is still some hesitancy,” Mendoza said. “Teachers are resistant because they think it will take time from their curriculum, and custodial staff is resistant because they think it will add to their clean-up work or bug and rodent problems. But when they hear how it’s working here, then they may be more open to it. Some teachers integrate class lessons into it, I’ve seen math and English teachers using the meals in their lessons.”

School board president Steve Zimmer said it was “a sad fact that LA Unified is sometimes every link in the food chain for our kids,” and that the only good food they get is at the schools. Students at Mosk are also provided suppers, which are served at a limited number of LA Unified schools.

During a news conference, Zimmer asked half a dozen kids what they liked best and got answers such as bean dip, tater tots, hamburgers, spaghetti and pupusas — a tortilla usually filled with meat or cheese.

“I think we all remember tater tots, but I never got spaghetti or pupusas when I went to school,” Zimmer quipped. “It looks like things have really improved!”

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