L.A. serves new, healthy school lunches. Will kids eat them?

School cooks in Los Angeles — who are largely responsible for providing the staple daily food source for tens of thousands of children — served up new back-to-school options on Friday, the latest attempt to feed youthful taste buds with healthy yet appealing food. But in a world of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, will the students eat their school lunches?

Enter turkey, ham and cheese croissants for breakfast. “Nashville” Hot Chicken Tenders and Honey Chip Cookies, mango smoothies and sub sandwiches with meatballs for lunch.

“It’s good,” little third-grader Antonio Plascencia wrote on his grading form, which he took as high praise. He ate his croissant sandwich before even moving on to the next item on his tray.

Feeding LA’s children has long been a must in the nation’s second-largest school district. About 80% of students come from low-income families, and many struggle with food insecurity. Parents’ long work hours can add an extra challenge to preparing meals, let alone healthy ones. Each school day, LA Unified’s $180 million program serves more than 300,000 breakfasts, approximately 285,000 lunches and approximately 70,000 early dinners.

During 13 months of pandemic-related school closures, LA Unified filled the hunger gap by offering grab-and-go food to all buyers, surpassing the generosity and expense borne by many other school systems during the crisis.

A man next to the microphone with people around him.

LAUSD suppt. Alberto M. Carvalho added his own reviews: “The new cinnamon rolls – very tasty. The kung pao chicken honey glazed with brown rice and broccoli – delicious.”

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

“A disproportionate number of our children live in poverty,” Supt said. Alberto Carvalho said on Friday. “We offer free breakfast and lunch — no questions asked — to every single child in our school system. We address food insecurity in our community by providing nutritious, healthy food options. They are attractive too. Why is that important? Hungry children do not learn well.”

He added his own reviews: “The new cinnamon rolls – very tasty. The kung pao chicken honey glazed with brown rice and broccoli – delicious.”

Food was prepared in the kitchen at the Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts downtown for about 30 generally satisfied tasters. But it’s a long way from this environment to the mass-producing central kitchens from which items are trucked onto campus.

The central kitchen system was a barrier to taste, despite quality ingredients and menus that meet or exceed federal guidelines. This is because many hot meals are comparable to reheated leftovers at the time they are served to students.

In the crowded LA Unified of the 1990s, efficiency was the priority in meal preparation, with central kitchens taking over the food prepared in school cafeterias — and pre-packaged food stations installed to keep long lines flowing. Many of the more than 100 new campuses lacked functional kitchens. And when existing schools were renovated, cooking appliances were often removed.

Test student Sebastine Chun, an 11th grade student at Chatsworth High School, recounted the unpleasant experience of getting a moldy hamburger.

About 40% of the meals can now be prepared in schools. Grocery managers have rephrased preparation, such as adding more salads to assemble on the spot while considering other recipes and purchasing new equipment. The goal is “speed scratch” cooking, where things are prepared quickly but as homemade as possible, said Manish Singh, the district’s director of catering.

A girl writes a note after trying a dish on the menu.

Tinniya Wilson, 9, a fourth grader at Compton Avenue Elementary School, writes down her impressions of the new LA Unified menu items.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Singh proudly pointed out to one student that all the sweetness in the strawberry smoothie bowl comes from the yogurt and fruit. Without added sugar. Also no nitrates, no sulfites, no artificial colors, no artificial flavors.

Sebastine was impressed with the ramen bowl: “The flavors are something I would expect in a restaurant, which is really surprising.”

But second grader Faith Posada found her ramen too bland: “It has no flavor.” However, she gave the croissant and cinnamon bun a “10 out of 10.”

Of course, generations of students everywhere have complained about school lunches. But despite all the complaints, LA Unified has been at the forefront of some innovations.

LA Unified was among the first to ban soda and packaged junk food. The district then switched to healthier products, and in 2011 switched from chicken nuggets, corn dogs, nachos, and other foods high in fat, sugar, and sodium to burgers with black beans, tostadas, quinoa salad, veggie curry, and fresh pears. But fewer students ate those lunches, often replacing them with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and soda from their backpacks.

Healthier foods might stand a better chance a decade later. before For example, during the pandemic, a group of vegan students and their parents regularly came to school board meetings demanding the types of food they preferred.

Among Friday’s testers was Karen Ramirez, 16, a vegetarian who wishes there were more options like this. But the mango smoothie showed promise: “I like the idea. But I think it could have tasted less like yogurt with a little more emphasis on the mango.”

LA Unified has sought to innovate in several ways, with an initiative to buy locally sourced ingredients and use its purchasing power to influence farming practices. About seven years ago, when the school board set new standards for how suppliers should treat their poultry, their workers and the environment, contract negotiations with the country’s two largest suppliers fell through, resulting in a year of virtually no chicken on the lunch menu of the schools stood.

Tacos and meatball sub sandwiches on a tray

Tacos and sub-sandwiches with meatballs were among the foods the students got to try.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

The district has also tried to curb food waste, but work remains to be done on that front.

There were fears along the way – chocolate milk was banned and then returned after students failed to drink regular milk. Breaded chicken was removed and then returned.

There was also labor intrigue — the school board approved health benefits for part-time cafeteria workers, even though it was pushing the feeding program into a deficit at the time. On the plus side, this policy also provided vital health insurance for low-wage workers and their families.

And as befits the school district, which includes Hollywood, there was even drama — the district refused to let celebrity boss Jamie Oliver film a show on its campus — and real crime, as a senior food official and chef for the district’s sake Counterfeiting in one district was convicted vendor application.

Jailyn Johnson, a senior attending King-Drew Medical Magnet, wasn’t particularly keen on school lunches. She recalls feeling nauseous after meals in elementary school, and in middle school she recalled being hurriedly warned over the intercom not to drink milk or yogurt after someone noticed it had expired.

In high school, if she forgot her lunch from home, she would often starve instead of eating the campus food. She said it affected her energy levels and ability to focus. And she’s not the only one: “Sometimes it’s gotten so bad where teachers have to bring snacks. I had a teacher who would have a PB and J [peanut butter and jelly] station for students.”

But on Friday she was encouraged: “I’m really enjoying some of the choices. I really liked the variety.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-07-30/l-a-unified-is-serving-up-new-healthier-school-meals-but-will-students-eat-them L.A. serves new, healthy school lunches. Will kids eat them?

Alley Einstein

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