Los Angeles school lunches are healthy with mango smoothies, ramen and berries. Do students bite? | Lifestyle

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Los Angeles school chefs, largely responsible for providing the main source of daily nutrition for tens of thousands of children, served up new back-to-school options Friday, the latest attempt to provide healthy food. but attractive to the taste buds of young people. But in a world of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, will the students eat their school meals?

Enter turkey, ham and cheese croissants for breakfast. “Nashville” hot chicken tenders and honey biscuits, mango smoothies and meatball sandwiches for lunch.

“It’s good,” diminutive third grader Antonio Plascencia wrote on his grading form, which was intended as high praise. He finished his croissant sandwich before even moving on to the next item on his tray.

Feeding LA’s children has long been an imperative in the nation’s second-largest school district. About 80% of the students come from low-income families and many deal with food insecurity. Parents’ long work schedules can make it an added challenge to prepare meals, not to mention healthy ones. Every school day, LAUSD’s $180 million-a-year program serves more than 300,000 breakfasts, about 285,000 lunches and about 70,000 early dinners.

During 13 months of pandemic-forced school closures, LA Unified filled the hunger void by offering grab-and-go food for all comers, surpassing the generosity and costs borne by many other school systems during the crisis.

“A disproportionate number of our children live in poverty,” the Superintendent said. Alberto Carvalho said on Friday. “We offer free breakfast and lunch, no questions asked, to every child in our school system. We are addressing food insecurity in our community by providing nutritious and healthy food options. They are also attractive. Why is this important? Children hungry do not learn well.

She added her own reviews: “The new cinnamon rolls, very tasty. The kung pao chicken, honey glazed, brown rice and broccoli, delicious.”

The items were prepared in the kitchen of the Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts, in the center of the city, for about 30, generally satisfied, students as tasters. But it’s a long way from this environment to the central mass-production kitchens, from which items are trucked to campuses.

The central kitchen system has been an impediment to taste, despite quality ingredients and menus that meet or exceed federal guidelines. This is because many hot foods are in effect similar to reheated leftovers when served to students.

In the overcrowded LAUSD of the 1990s, efficiency was the priority in meal preparation, with central kitchens replacing food prepared in school cafeterias, and pre-packaged food stations set up to keep long lines moving. Many of the more than 100 new campuses lacked functional kitchens. And renovations to existing schools often removed kitchen equipment.

Student evaluator Sebastian Chun, an 11th grader at Chatsworth High School, recounted the unpleasant experience of receiving a moldy hamburger.

About 40% of menu items can now be prepared in schools. Food managers have reformulated the preparation, adding more salads, for example, which can be assembled on site while other recipes are rethought and new equipment is obtained. The goal is quick cooking, where things are done quickly but in as homemade a way as possible, said Manish Singh, director of food services for the district.

Singh proudly pointed out to a student that all the sweetness in the strawberry milkshake comes from the yogurt and fruit. No added sugars. Neither nitrates, sulfites, artificial colors, artificial flavors.

Sebastian was impressed with the bowl of ramen: “The flavors are something you’d expect to see in a restaurant, which is really amazing.”

But second-grader Faith Posada found her ramen too bland: “It has no flavor.” The croissant and cinnamon bun, however, he rated them “10 out of 10”.

Of course, generations of students around the world have complained about school lunches. But despite all the complaints, LA Unified has been a leader in some innovations.

LA Unified was one of the first to ban pre-packaged soft drinks and junk food. The district then transitioned to healthier items, moving in 2011 from chicken nuggets, corn dogs, nachos and other foods high in fat, sugar and sodium to black bean burgers, tostadas, quinoa salad, vegetarian curries and fresh pears. But fewer students ate those lunches, often substituting Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and soda from their backpacks.

Healthier foods might have a better chance a decade later. Before the pandemic, for example, a group of vegan students and their parents regularly attended school board meetings to demand what kind of food they preferred.

Friday’s testers included Karen Ramirez, 16, a vegetarian who wished there were more options available. But the mango smoothie promised: “I like the idea. But I think she could have tasted less like yogurt with a little more emphasis on the mango.”

LA Unified has tried to innovate in several ways, with an initiative to buy locally sourced ingredients and use their purchasing power to influence farming practices. About seven years ago, when the school board set new standards for how vendors should treat their poultry, their workers and the environment, contract negotiations with the nation’s two largest vendors fell apart, leading to a year when there was virtually no chicken on school menus.

The district has also tried to curb food waste, but has a long way to go on that front.

Along the way there has been heartbreak: Chocolate milk was banned, then returned after students didn’t drink regular milk. She removed the breaded chicken and then brought it back.

There has also been labor intrigue: The school board approved health benefits for part-time cafeteria workers even though it caused a shortfall in the food program at the time. On the plus side, that policy also provided vital health coverage for low-wage workers and their families.

And as befits the school district that includes Hollywood, there has even been drama: The district refused to allow celebrity boss Jamie Oliver to film a show on its campuses, and a true crime, when a top food official and chef at the district was convicted of forgery in one district. vendor request.

Jailyn Johnson, a senior attending King-Drew Medical Magnet, hasn’t been too keen on school food. She remembers that she got sick after eating in elementary school, and in high school she remembered the hasty warnings over the intercom not to drink the milk or yogurt after someone noticed that it was expired.

In high school, if he forgot his lunch from home, he would often go hungry instead of eating the campus food. She said it affected her energy level and her ability to concentrate. And she’s not the only one: “She has sometimes gotten so bad that teachers have to bring snacks. She had a teacher who had a PB and J [peanut butter and jelly] Student station.

But on Friday, he perked up: “I’m really enjoying some of the options. I’ve really liked the diversity.”

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