Small LA School District Shows Mighty Heart

Lawndale Elementary School District embraces the power of partnerships to nourish students with good food 

Nestled in the South Bay of Los Angeles County sits a small community often viewed in relation to its proximity to popular destinations, like Manhattan Beach. If you Google search Lawndale, the first few pages are filled with entries about Lawndale, Chicago. 

Our Lawndale, however, is home to one of the smallest school districts in Los Angeles County: Lawndale Elementary School District, which consists of eight public schools and serves just under 5,000 students. 

“We have a lot of diverse ethnicities here, predominantly Latino, a lot of first-generation immigrant families, and we also have a large population of African American students,” says Virginia Castro, the district’s new superintendent. “Our students are about 80 percent qualified for free and reduced lunch, so we have a lot of need in our community.”

Fifth graders enjoy learning outdoors in the Mitchell World of Plants at Billy Mitchell Elementary in Lawndale, CA. Photo credit: Rochelle Li

In 2021 and 2022 California passed School Meals for All. This bill supplemented with over one billion dollars worth of investments in kitchen infrastructure, augmented reimbursements, and farm-to-school programming, allowing schools to prepare more fresh, California-grown meals. Previously, a family of four had to make less than $49,025 to qualify for reduced-price meals in the 2021-22 school year. Federal eligibility requirements do not take into account the high cost of living in California. 

“Previously, we operated under the regular National School Lunch Program, and that was very challenging for our staff,” says Director of Nutrition and Wellness Lissette Rooney. “The student would come through the line, and you would have to say, ‘Hola friend, I can’t give you a full meal.’ Other people would notice. It was shaming. It was awful.”

Rosa Vasquez (L) and Ana Montenegro (R) bag oranges for Second Chance Breakfast at Billy Mitchell Elementary. Photo credit: Rochelle Li

On an October morning, the kitchen staff at Billy Mitchell Elementary School were busily preparing more than 600 meals to feed every child with fresh and culturally-relevant meals for the day. At Billy Mitchell, there has been a 30 percent increase in school meal participation since August due to School Meals For All and Second Chance Breakfast. Second Chance Breakfast is a program where students who may have missed it can grab breakfast during recess according to Rooney. 

Senior Food Service Assistant Rosa Vasquez, was working quickly with her colleague to bag fruit and start preparing lunch. On the menu today were pupusas. Students often use the salad bar to round out their meals with cabbage, lettuce, and other fresh veggies. When produce is in season, Vasquez tries to incorporate vegetables and fruits grown by students in the school’s garden, Mitchell World of Plants. (The garden was named by a fourth grader in 2009.)

“I love going to the garden,” says Kailyn, who is nine years old and likes to study math. “I like all the vegetables and the butterflies.” 

Kailyn learns about where fruits and vegetables come from in the Mitchell World of Plants. 

But being a small district in LA County where there are not a lot of farms makes purchasing locally grown produce “very difficult,” says Rooney. Building relationships with farms is time-consuming for an already stretched staff. “We can’t always get what we want, or that is fresh and as delicious as possible,” she says.  

For districts like Lawndale, whose community is committed to maximizing available funds for quality school food for the well being of every child, partnerships are key. From purchasing cooperatives to parent-school liaisons to volunteers to nonprofits like FoodCorps, Billy Mitchell Elementary School shines because of its people. 

“It’s personal to us. We have a real partnership with our families,” says Billy Mitchell Elementary Principal Courtney Gillette. “We are a community that’s connected.”

(L to R): Lawndale Elementary School District Director of Nutrition & Wellness Lissette Rooney, Lawndale Elementary School District Superintendent Virginia Castro, Billy Mitchell Elementary Principal Courtney Gillette, and Billy Mitchell Elementary Assistant Principal Laura Quane.

The Proof Is In The Tighty Whities

Orange monarch butterflies flutter in between loquat, white sapote, and fig trees. Tiles painted with scenes from books, like “The Giving Tree” and “The Secret Garden,” decorate garden beds full of cherry tomatoes, spring onions, and eggplants. Tiny boots sprout succulents. Sunshine and raindrops brighten walls. And a sign reminds every visitor: “A garden is a friend you can visit any time.”

Before photos of the Mitchell World of Plants courtesy of Kris Lauritson.

This enclosed California native garden opens a new world for students. It teaches them about where their food comes from, wise water management, and vermicomposting, says Kris Lauritson, a UC Cooperative Extension, LA County Master Gardener and volunteer. She started Mitchell World of Plants to reconnect children to agriculture and nutrition in 2009 and partners with Botanical Interest for free seeds. 

To demonstrate the importance of cultivating healthy soils, Ms. Kris, as the students call her, asks them to bury a pair of “tighty whitey” underwear in the garden, to predict what will happen to it, and dig it back up in six weeks.

“It’s a real crowd-pleaser,” she says. “When we dig up the underwear, it’s virtually eaten. That proves, in a broad way, that our soil is healthy, [that] we have a lot of micro- and macroorganisms supporting crop and soil health. We’ve also proven this in our worm bin. We’ve put a pair of cotton Levi’s in there, and the worms eat everything, except the zipper.”

Master Gardener and volunteer Kris Lauritson helps students make the connection between their food and their health through gardening and storytelling.

Experiential learning is fun, but it can also reduce food waste and create an environment to try new things, especially for students whose families don’t have the means or botanical knowledge, says Lauritson.

“Who would have guessed that French sorrel, a leafy green, would be so popular,” says Lauritson. “I will argue with anyone who says that Mitchell Elementary kids do not eat their fruits and vegetables. I’m here to tell you I bear witness to the fact that they do.”

Most teachers and students agree: the garden should have an honorary name after Ms. Kris. 

Mindful Tasting in the Garden 

By partnering with FoodCorps, a national nutrition education nonprofit, Billy Mitchell Elementary takes experiential learning one step further. Brandi Aldana, a FoodCorps AmeriCorps service member, splits their time between the schools of Lawndale Elementary Unified and helps students deepen their knowledge and appreciation for the ingredients on their cafeteria trays and dining room tables.

“They’re especially excited to try fruits and vegetables that they have at home because they just never knew where it came from,” says Aldana.

FoodCorps AmeriCorps service member Brandi Aldana says students are more likely to enjoy new fruits and vegetables if they’re more engaged through activities like gardening or mindful tasting. Photo credit: Rochelle Li

During today’s class, Aldana asks students to close their eyes and take a minute to pay attention to other senses like hearing and feeling. Now that the students have found their zen, it’s time for mindful grape tasting. This includes smelling the grape, looking at the inside closely, rolling the grape between their fingers, and then the fun part: tasting them.

Fifth-grader Josiah closely inspects the difference between the inside and outside of a red grape during a mindful tasting class with FoodCorps. Photo credit: Rochelle Li

“It felt like a stress ball,” says Josiah, who is in the fifth grade. “You could squeeze it, but it wasn’t so firm. It was tart on the outside and on the inside, it was really juicy.” 

Later, Josiah admits that while he loves to do pretty much anything in the garden, he has to be dressed appropriately (in other words, not wearing his Jordans). And like his fellow student Kailyn, Josiah is not a fan of the worms.

Fifth-graders enjoy learning about where their food comes from in an outdoor class at Billy Mitchell Elementary with FoodCorps. Photo credit: Rochelle Li

Reflecting on the Past to Hope for a Better Future 

Outside the garden, Rooney and Castro share how COVID made a lot of people realize what these two have known for a long time—schools are important community centers. From mental health services to outdoor education to free food, families across America relied on educators and school nutrition staff to help them through a very difficult two years. 

“The school did a wonderful job during COVID providing produce for families. That helped us a lot,” says Ariana Felix, a parent of two daughters at Billy Mitchell Elementary and a long-time volunteer. “And now there’s School Meals For All, so students get breakfast as soon as they get here. That’s amazing.”

(L to R:) Billy Mitchell parent and PTA volunteer Ariana Felix works closely with Community Liaison Evelyn Duarte as schools serve as hubs for services like food, health, and housing. 

While inflation remains stubbornly high and predictions of a recession abound, many families living paycheck to paycheck will continue to be squeezed financially. 

“We know that parents are struggling a lot. It’s become quite a luxury to live in California,” says Castro. “If we receive more funding, that would allow us to put those funds back into our programming, buy higher quality foods, do staff training, and purchase equipment.”

As California begins to spend down the $2 billion committed to School Meals For All, kitchen infrastructure, and Farm to School, everyone at Lawndale hopes to see some funds allocated to their nutrition programming. 

“More options would be good,” says Evelyn Duarte, Billy Mitchell Elementary’s community liaison. “Like salad without salad dressing or peach tea instead of milk.”

Either way, the language around school food has to change, says Duarte. 

“Using the word ‘healthy’ to describe meals turns off most adults, let alone kids. So instead of celery and sunflower butter, they’re called ants on a stick.” Point taken. 

Lawndale Director of Nutrition & Wellness Lissette Rooney dreams of offering more California-grown ingredients on the menu. Photo credit: Rochelle Li

Recently promoted to Director of Nutrition and Wellness, Rooney is hungry to hire more staff and improve Lawndale’s menus. She says one of her biggest needs is a larger kitchen at Billy Mitchell Elementary. There is only so much you can do with one small walk-in cooler, a reach-in freezer, and a combi oven. 

“The quality could potentially be a lot better, for example, if we could source California locally grown apples and have the equipment to cut them,” she says. “We want to be good stewards of public funds while still getting and serving high-quality and delicious foods. Those are the things I dream about.”