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All The School Board President's Men: The LAUSD's Spin Control Machine Gets an "F" for Food Services

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A couple of the little customers the LAUSD would not allow LAist to interact with today during their press event (Photo via KFINews/Twitpic)
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This morning the Los Angeles Unified School District put on a Food Service Division dog and pony show intended as an obvious response to the criticisms levied against them in last night's Season Two Premiere of the Emmy-award winning "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution." Major television press outlets, English and Spanish speaking, were invited to attend. LA's number one blog? Well, we weren't allowed to go.The taste and appeal of the actual food was the focus of the event, which the LAUSD outlined in a revised--they opted to modify the release after sending it to allow only "credentialed" media--press release sent yesterday:

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) will clarify, with credentialed news media, the District’s decision not to participate in the television reality show. District staff will provide information on LAUSD’s accomplishments in creating healthy lifestyles and provide a tour of its Newman Nutrition Center, the District’s central kitchen facility, that helps serve more than 122 million student meals a year. News media will also have the opportunity to taste menu items. A high school cafeteria tour near the center will follow.

Outgoing Superintendent Ramon Cortines has said, "the food is fine, I like it." Okay, whatever, sure, you like it. "All entrées must have 75 percent student approval before it can be placed on the school menu," explains the LAUSD. Those kids, incidentally, are considered "customers" by the District, as if their lunchtime at-school experience was the same as bellying up to the bar at the local Hometown Buffet. Ready for some deliciousness? "A few of the items on next year’s menu include: Salvadorian Beef Stew, Chicken Tandoori, Asian Pad Thai, California Sushi Roll, and Teriyaki Beef and Broccoli with Brown Rice." However, to the LAUSD, the actual palate-ability and quality of the food are secondary issues.

The district's press machine, headed by Robert Alaniz (seen on the "Food Revolution" show last night) can make the argument their food services are not that bad. Fine. And Oliver's highlighting of "pink slime" beef-remnant filler in hamburger and his display of sugary milk and "pizza glop in a microwave" bag are definitely camera-compelling moments. The real story that we will not be able to approach (literally, police turned non-invited press away today) is one of budget. So what is the LAUSD hiding?

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The biggest questions in our minds now reside around issues of transparency and budget with a public-funded and voter-approved governmental body. Discussed in conversation at last night's California Endowment-hosted premiere for "Food Revolution" is the fact that the current head of Food Service Dennis Barrett's former employer, Horizon, is the multi-million dollar vendor of the district's new electronic card payment system for the district cafeterias. Instead of paper-reduced and free lunch vouchers, students can now swipe a credit card. On the surface that sounds efficient; however the purchase was made with district general funds at a time when teachers, librarians and other staff are being cut.

Here are the questions we were hoping to ask LAUSD Food Services today:

1. Is the district shielding itself from scrutiny surrounding major purchases with vendors that have ties to district employees? Have district press officials been informed to steer reporters toward stunt-kids wolfing down "Asian Pad Thai"and away from the districts renewed contracts with ethically-challenged and previously indicted vendors like Tyson chicken?

2. Is the Food Service Division trying to hide the fact that $90 million in federal funds for school lunches remain in Washington, DC annually, because participation in the program remains at 20-30% annually at the high school-level across the district?

3. Have Alaniz and district press officers been instructed by Board President Garcia to shield current school board candidate and Chief of Staff Luis Sanchez from this food fight in order to maintain her control of the $8 billion dollar entity that is LAUSD?

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4. Why can't the speakers address the elected board at meetings and have conversations with the elected officials as highlighted in last night's episode of "Food Revolution"?

5. Was the reported 50 million for the Horizon system funds from the general fund that could have been used to pay teacher, nurse and librarian salaries?

6. Why doesn't the LAUSD's Beaudry headquarters use the district's Food Services to provide food for their 3,000 employees? And why doesn't the LAUSD Board use Food Services to cater their own board meetings instead of relying on costly outside catering?

These are not small questions. They remain unanswered. 1st amendment fail.

The "quirks" of an organization like the LAUSD are typically hidden by the "veil of silence" behind which they operate. How do I know? Up until I attended the first taping in Jamie Oliver's Westwood "Food Revolution" kitchen I was employed as the Green Policy Director for a LAUSD Board Member. Now I'm free to work with institutions like the San Diego Unified School District's food services, who are planning their 5-acre urban farm where their students can be hands-on with healthy, organic produce that will go into their cafeterias.

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Despite the entertainment of Jamie Oliver's stunts, this is a serious matter: In the LAUSD we have 650,000 kids whose welfare is at stake. There is a better way to feed them.

LAist Editor Lindsay William-Ross contributed to this story