Does that make any sense to anyone except for a bureaucrat?
By Diana L. Chapman
A food fight was inevitable when the Los Angeles Unified School District opted to battle this one.
Some things border on stupidity. Others are just simply ridiculous. But this -- in the case of the district’s recent decision to close down San Pedro High School’s student run Pirate’s Café – made the food fly. I’m ready to throw a few tomatoes myself at the arrogance of it all.
Here’s how it all started.
After an entrepreneurial group of students brainstormed a brilliant effort to offer students healthy food by opening the café doors -- and won an award for their efforts -- a school board official showed up at the school declaring the café was in direct competition with the school cafeteria. He forced the small eatery on May 30 – which only planned to serve food three times a week – to close its doors. The student run operation only made it in business for a total of five days.
The move has infuriated long time culinary teacher, Sandy Wood, who oversaw the cafe.
This punitive action – and to me its punitive – has left her contemplating quitting because it was “unconscionable and only hurting the students. Students who ate at the café and were running it were miserably disappointed.
And School Board Member Mike Lansing, who leaves the board at the end of June, received a call on his way to Palm Springs, fumed over by what appears to be another frivolous action by some mid level manager. It’s hard to believe that a café, which only sold about 40 sandwiches a day, was ever in a true completion with the school’s cafeteria food that serves hundreds.
“Believe me,” Mike told me on the phone line, “if there aren’t health issues it will be reinstated. He immediately directed his staff to investigate and a meeting is scheduled for Monday. He added he told his staff: “I do not want to hear why this “won’t” work, but rather how we “will” reinstate this positive program by September – nothing less.”
It’s the same old story ever since I can remember, forever and a day, about bureaucrats getting too arrogant who begin going around flexing their muscles like bullies – picking on small delicacies rather than seeing the bigger fruit on the tree. All four of the students who planned the café are looking at future food services careers and this experience only enhances what the schools are supposed to do – teach. Now we will have to watch the outcome as higher ups spend a lot of time discussing the issue and wasting precious time. And the school year is almost over!
What started out as a fantastic idea now sits spoiling like rotting food on a shelf. The way it began was like this. A group of students decided to run for a contest, called Echo Project, which is connected to a UCLA mentor program.
Students were asked to design a new business, write a business plan, determine how they would act that plan out and -- if they won – would be provided $500 for start up costs.
The four students were awarded the first place winners on Feb. 24 for an inspiring “new business category” to feed students healthy, notorious food. Their motto: “Pirate’s Café; Delicious and Nutritious.” For three days a week and less than a month, they got off to a resounding start, selling turkey and veggie sandwiches during lunch hours for $3 and fruit salad for $2. Only 100 percent juice was sold and everything prepared was sold out immediately.
It was impossible to compete with the cafeteria, the teacher said, because they café only prepared 40 sandwiches a day and thousands of students eat in the cafeteria. They opened in late April and were shut down by the end of June.
“It was such a big hit,” Sandy told me during a cooking class where students bustled around making salads, paring vegetables, boiling pasta and whipping up lunch for themselves like Fettuccine Alfredo (which I tasted and its was scrumptious.)
Her regular class of students were having so much fun – and actually learning to cook and take care of themselves – I wondered just how ludicrous it would be to lose obviously such a special teacher who students seemed to adore. But why continue with a district, she argued he “hurts its own students.”
When the four students won, she said, she was so proud of them “because we didn’t know anything about a business plan and we just decided we’re going to learn. They went to UCLA for the competition and they won. They were really thrilled.”
The students – Ainsley Sanchez, Lidia Pedroza, Anthony Hernandez, all 17, and Dennis Veliz, 18, immediately used the money to buy supplies and opened up the café under Sandy’s guidance. With the small amount of profits, the students decided they would invest back into the business and then perhaps give one student a scholarship to culinary school.
“I was really bummed and sad,” when the doors closed, explained Ainsley while cooking hamburgers in class. “We had been working on this project since October and we barely lasted a month.”
Even students who enjoyed Pirate’s Café said they cannot understand food service’s decision.
“They did a good job and the sandwiches were really good,” said 10th grader Monique Maestro, 16. “I was just so mad, because that was my lunch. The cafeteria food isn’t healthy at all.”
“It was really good and they were so organized,” said Jeanine Vargas, 16, an 11th grader. “I feel so bad because they worked so hard to put this together. It was like why?”
Why is a good question Jeanine.
The way it all went down, the teacher explained, was she received a call to come to the principal’s office on the afternoon where she met David Copleland, a food supervisor for the district. He was holding an article about the Café in the More San Pedro newspaper and demanded café be closed, Wood said. The reasons, he told her, were that the district did not allow direct competition with school cafeterias and that she didn’t have the proper permits.
. The teacher was stunned. No one had ever told her she had to have permits. She didn’t need any for a cooking class and the café was running out of the same classroom.
The doors were closed that day and remain that way.
Monday’s meeting should reveal the outcome, but this all sounds like the big bully came to town to me. Maybe perhaps the real fear Mr. Copleland has – and he should fear it – is that the student café will become so successful and popular that these students will have successful cafés pop at schools all over Los Angeles.
Now that’s now such a bad idea, Mr. Copeland, is it? If the district can’t provide healthy food – what’s so wrong with a bit of competition? In America, last I heard, that’s a good thing.