Los Angeles Students Grade District's New Menu Choices

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

It's a reform effort years in the making in the nation's second-largest school system. Only this one is being carried out around a group of tables at the district's massive kitchen, where the executive chef is serving his latest creations to several dozen teenagers.

On a recent day, student food critics from East Los Angeles sit in judgment, circling thumbs-up or thumbs-down and writing comments on the new menu choices.

Hummus with whole-wheat pita, a farmers market salad and vegetable tamales? Thumbs up.

Ancho chile chicken on noodles and a quinoa salad? Thumbs down.

Israel Morales, a Garfield High School junior, samples a spoonful of pozole, the hominy stew, made with chicken.

"It was great, one of the best ones I've had," he said.

The effort is aimed at remaking cafeteria food in the Los Angeles Unified School District. In coming weeks, the district will do away with canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, chicken nuggets and corn dogs and begin incorporating more locally grown produce into the daily fare.

The L.A. school district has become a leader in the movement to improve school food, beginning with the landmark decision in 2004 to ban soda sales on campuses and, more recently, removing chocolate and strawberry milk from the menu. Television chef Jamie Oliver, who criticized the district for not opening its doors to his cameras a few months ago, was among those calling for the flavored milk ban.

Now, districts across the country are embracing similar efforts. In Fresno, the school district is considering the flavored milk ban, and smaller school systems are preparing much of their cafeteria food from scratch.

Over many months, the district has been bringing in students like Israel and others from a variety of schools and grade levels for taste tests at the Newman Center, near downtown, where 225,000 meals are prepared daily and shipped to campuses. For the recent tasting, about 50 students and some parents were served by the district's executive chef, Mark Baida.

Students have rejected some items. The meatloaf, for example, will not appear in cafeterias. But Greek salad and roast chicken will. Ditto for tostada salad that includes shredded cabbage, tortilla strips, corn, beans and cheese.

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