Surplus School Food Nourishes Needy

Times Education Writer

The Los Angeles Unified School District has hit upon a creative solution to an ages-old problem--what to do with leftovers.

At six district schools, pizzas, burritos and cheeseburgers left over at the end of lunch each school day no longer become junked food but are donated to the needy instead.

Since early December, the Union Rescue Mission and Para los Ninos, a social service agency for disadvantaged children, have collected more than 2,000 free meals--which otherwise would have been mashed and trashed--and fed them to homeless people and children from low-income families. The entrees are being supplied by 9th Street, San Pedro and 28th Street elementary schools and Belmont, Fairfax and Hollywood high schools.

On Monday, the Los Angeles school board authorized district officials to seek agreements with other social service agencies that could distribute the food. District officials say they hope more charitable organizations and all of the district's 600 schools will eventually become involved in the program.

"It's a very creative way of solving some of the problems we have," said John Dickson, director of development for the downtown Union Rescue Mission, which uses the food to supplement its daily meal service for 2,000 individuals. "Why throw meals away when there are people who can use them?"

The district does not keep track of how many school lunches it discards each day, but the number could run as high as 6,000 meals a day, or 30,000 meals a week.

"It could be 10 meals per school to 50 per school, and we have roughly 600 schools," said Beth Louargand, the district's director of food services.

Largely because of potential legal problems over spoilage and illness that could result, the district had maintained strict rules about uneaten school lunches. The unused food had to be discarded--either down the sink or into the trash can.

"I was baffled" by the waste, said board member Julie Korenstein, who proposed the donation program.

But the two agencies that have accepted the food agreed to sign a waiver absolving the district of liability in case the food spoils or causes someone to become sick.

Finding agencies that could serve the food immediately also was a concern. "One of the problems is that the food has been heated up once already, so it needs to be re-served in short span--within a couple of hours," Louargand said. "That makes it hard on some agencies."

The Union Rescue Mission refrigerates the food and usually serves it the following day, Dickson said, because it receives the food too late to include in the evening meal.

But Para los Ninos makes sure that the free pizzas and burgers are eaten right away, executive director Jack J. Faz said. The food is distributed to poor children enrolled in the latchkey child care program at 9th Street School, which serves the Skid Row area, and to teen-agers at a youth center the group sponsors.

"We usually serve them a snack--slices of apples and cheese or raisins," said Paz. "Now with this new program we are able to supplement the snack and provide, in essence, a meal. These children . . . would not have the opportunity to have anything like this at home."

The district donates only food items that have not been served, which winds up being mostly leftover entrees. On Monday, for instance, the agencies picked up untouched portions of pizza and oven-baked chicken.

"The (school) kids eat all the desserts," said Louargand. "And, although I hate to say this, I don't think anyone wants leftover vegetables. So the entrees are all we have left" to donate.

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