How LAUSD Handed Out 13 Million Free Meals In 6 Weeks

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By Carla Javier and Chava Sanchez

In the weeks since the Los Angeles Unified School District closed its campuses to slow the spread of COVID-19, the nation's second-largest school district has become a large-scale provider of food relief.

Since March 18, volunteers and staff have distributed over 13 million free meals to children and adults.

The district says it was well-positioned to provide food relief at such a large scale because even before the pandemic, its schools already provided food to thousands of kids.

Almost 80% of LAUSD students qualify for free and reduced-priced meals, which are reimbursed through school nutrition programs run by the federal government and state.


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Food services director Manish Singh estimated that the district serves students almost 700,000 meals a day — 330,000 breakfasts, 280,000 lunches, and up to 80,000 dinners.

But the more than 500,000 free meals the district is giving out every day now that schools are closed due to coronavirus work a bit differently.

For one thing, they're not consumed at school, but instead provided in grab-and-go bags to allow for appropriate social distancing. Another key difference: anyone, not just kids, can receive these meals — making reimbursement complicated.

In an April 20 update, LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner explained that providing this safety net is estimated to cost $136 million. It has identified funding for $58 million of the cost of providing meals to children, but has yet to figure out exactly how it will cover the remaining $78 million, including $40 million spent on meals for adults.

LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner revealed the unexpected costs of COVID-19 closures in an April 20 video update. (LAUSD Screenshot)

As of April 27, the district has raised more than $7 million from the community. Beutner explained in a different recorded address that LAUSD is applying for funds from FEMA and is asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture — which runs school nutrition programs — to waive "the additional costs of child meals," which the district previously estimated to cost $38 million.

The district is also pressuring the state, county, and city for help from their coronavirus relief funds.

"The appropriate portion of those funds should be going to their intended use, to provide food to children and adults in need," Beutner said in the video.

Singh, from the food services division, said the district has committed to offer the meals for the rest of the school year, which is scheduled to end June 12.

In his April 27 update, Superintendent Austin Beutner explained how the district is pursuing funding for food relief efforts. (LAUSD Screenshot)

While the funding gets sorted out, 2,900 staff across the 63 grab-and-go centers — and even more from operations and the district's warehouse — are still preparing meals and handing out food.

Acquiring, transporting, packaging, and distributing the meals is a long, complicated process. To explain how it works — and what challenges the district is facing — let's follow the journey of a meal, from the district's Pico Rivera warehouse, to the distribution spots.

5:30 a.m. | Day before meal distribution

PREPARING THE ORDERS

The process begins at the district's Pico Rivera warehouse, which principal stock clerk Willie Harris describes as "about twice the size, or maybe three times the size, of a regular Costco."

The aisles are lined with thousands of cases of frozen food, non-perishable grocery staples, and supplies.

Hours before the drivers show up, food is pulled from the shelves and parceled up for distribution to the 63 grab-and-go meal sites. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Harris looks through the invoices for the frozen food department, and directs his team of six to pull thousands of cases in a shift.

For perspective, in the frozen food department, a case can vary in size from 72 sausage biscuits to more than 200 items.

"What we do for the children, you have to understand, this comes from the heart," said Harris, who has worked with the district for 25 years. "A lot of us don't have to be here. We could be at home and using excuses of why we don't have to be at work, but people in the district are not made like that, the ones that really, truly care."

When his team — and their counterparts in other departments — are done, another shift comes in to load the items into the trucks for delivery.

Principal Stock Clerk Willie Harris loads a cold storage truck headed to Dorsey High School in South L.A. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

4 a.m. | Day of meal distribution

TRANSPORTING THE FOOD

Truck drivers like Danny Medina arrive at the warehouse early in the morning.

Danny Medina arrives at Dorsey High School in South L.A. around 5:30 a.m. and begins to unload his truck. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

First, they complete a safety check. Afterwards, Medina inspects his vehicle, loads any equipment he may need, and looks over the inventory to make sure the right items are going to the right place.

Normally, the drivers would use different trucks depending on the day, but Medina said, to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus, the drivers are using the same truck each day.

5 a.m.

DRIVERS DEPART

Trucks leave Pico Rivera and head to the 63 grab-and-go centers across the district.

5:20 a.m.

UNLOADING THE FOOD

Medina arrives at the school site — normally Santee, though the day we visited, he was at Dorsey — and unloads the contents of the truck.

"I sometimes unload 11 pallets and it takes me two-and-a half, three hours to do it," Medina explains. "And it is hard work. It is back-breaking work."

Danny Medina works alone and must maneuver full pallets through tight spaces.(Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Medina said he appreciates the safety measures undertaken — daily checks, masks, gloves, reduced sharing of vehicles — and emphasizes that he does feel safe, and is happy to do this work.

"It is a privilege and honor to be a part of it, to be able to help get food to the people who need it," said Medina, who has been with the district for 13 years.

6:30 a.m.

PACKAGING THE MEALS

The center of operations at Virgil Middle School, another one of the 63 grab-and-go centers, is the student lounge. Normally, it's where students eat lunch, but now it's where the grab-and-go meals are packaged.

Cafeteria manager Rocio Villanueva works with a staff of 13 food services workers, staff from different schools and departments, and volunteers.

Singh from LAUSD's food services said the district offered an additional $100 a day to district staff who offered to work at these distribution spots. The American Red Cross Los Angeles Region has also recruited hundreds of volunteers for the grab-and-go sites.

Cafeteria manager Rocio Villanueva (center) poses for a picture with the other grab-and-go workers at Virgil Middle School. (Courtesy Rocio Villanueva)

There are signs around the lounge and kitchen reminding everyone to wash their hands and little pink tape x's and lines on the ground help them keep appropriate social distance as they bag up to 4,500 meals in a day.

8 a.m.

DISTRIBUTION BEGINS

The LAUSD grab-and-go centers officially open at 8 a.m.

Villanueva says usually at her school site, Virgil Middle School, there's already a line of 20 cars well-before opening time. There are five stations, and visitors can either drive or walk up.

The question has come up — in town halls hosted by LAUSD board members, on social media, and in comments from KPCC listeners and LAist readers — about what, if any documentation is requested at the grab-and-go centers.

The answer: none.

"You just have to let us know how many kids and how many adults are going to be receiving the meals," Villanueva explained. The district needs to keep a running count for reimbursement purposes.

Another concern: the presence of L.A. School Police.

Food services director Manish Singh said any police on site are only there to direct traffic.

"We are not questioning them. We don't ask for ID," Singh explained. "We just ask how many meals you're looking for, and we provide those meals."

11 a.m.

MEAL DISTRIBUTION ENDS

Virgil Middle cafeteria manager Villanueva explained that leftover food isn't wasted or thrown out, but instead prepared for the following day.

Staff clean up and sanitize the pod, and leave at 11:30 a.m.

"The other day, [the employees] didn't want to leave," Villanueva said. "And I felt really emotional. Humbled that they wanted to continue working."

Villanueva notes how many meals were distributed and assesses what she has left. She sends her orders to the district, where the process begins again with an invoice at the warehouse in Pico Rivera.

This day's menu includes nachos, carrots, and L.A. Unified's famous coffee cake. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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