Union officials representing school cafeteria workers led a noisy rally of parents Tuesday to save a Los Angeles Unified classroom breakfast program that feeds nearly 200,000 children but was in danger of being axed after sharp criticism by teachers.
Even as the majority of LAUSD school board members indicated they would vote to continue the program, about 100 parents turned out at Hooper Elementary School in South L.A., waving noisemakers and signs in Spanish and English to save the breakfasts.
One mother, Janet Torrez, said her two sons prefer to eat at school rather than at home but that a previous before-school meal program didn't work because the children chose to play during the time instead. The classroom breakfast, she said, ensures her sons start their school day with a nutritious meal.
"I don't want them to take the breakfast away," she said. "This program is really important for the kids to eat and open their minds."
The program's fate was thrown into question last week when LAUSD Supt. John Deasy said he would eliminate it without explicit board direction to retain it. He said United Teachers Los Angeles had complained that serving breakfast in the classroom, rather than before school in the cafeteria, took up too much instructional time and created messes.
Courtni Pugh, executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 99, said she believed the momentum has shifted to save the program, which has preserved more than 900 cafeteria jobs. But she added that the union would continue to lead rallies at other schools this week.
In the last few days, at least four of seven board members said they would back the program, including Monica Garcia, Bennett Kayser, Nury Martinez and Steve Zimmer. Board member Tamar Galatzan is still undecided, according to a spokeswoman. The other members, Richard Vladovic and Marguerite LaMotte, could not be reached for comment.
"I am thrilled," Deasy said Monday of the support for the program, which is set for a board vote May 14. "This is very good news for students who live in circumstances of poverty and need to eat."
Kayser said he was impressed by the program in his first visit to observe it Monday at Micheltorena Street Elementary in Silver Lake. He said the children told him that the day's fare – blueberry muffins – was not as popular as burritos, waffles and pancakes. But thanks to several parent volunteers, he said, the breakfast items were rolled in a cart to the classroom, unpacked, served, eaten and cleaned up all in just 10 minutes.
Martinez said the program has helped improve academic performance, student attention spans, attendance and health. "We know that well-nourished children make better students," she said in a statement, adding that she would support any initiative that ensures that all youths "begin each and every day ready to learn."
Zimmer also said Monday he would back the program and questioned why it even became an issue.
"I don't see why we can't solve this," he said, referring to concerns by the teachers union.
Earlier this month, the union posted a video and online poll findings that more than half of 729 respondents said the classroom breakfast program had increased pests, created messes and consumed an average of 30 minutes of instructional time a day. That lost time, the union said in a flier to parents, amounted to eight school days a year.
But union President Warren Fletcher said his members were willing to sit down and discuss alternatives. He attended the Hooper Elementary rally Tuesday in what he said was a show of support for school service workers and to press for more custodial jobs to clean up after breakfast. He added that union officials are meeting with parents, community groups, nutrition advocates and others to seek solutions to concerns over sanitation, loss of teaching time and the quality of the breakfast items.
"We want to make sure kids have access to a nutritious breakfast where it isn't an either/or," he said.
The breakfast program has been expanded in the last year from a handful of schools to 280 under an initiative by the district, the nonprofit Los Angeles Fund for Public Education and other partners. The aim was to boost the number of children eating morning meals – which has been linked to better attendance, more student focus and fewer trips to the nurse's office.
So far, the classroom program has increased participation from 29% to 89% and this year brought in $6.1 million in federal school breakfast reimbursements, according to David Binkle, the district's food services director. That figure is projected to increase to $20 million if the program is expanded to more than 680 schools as has been planned.