At 12:33 p.m., the lunch bell rings at Los Angeles High School. Moments later comes the stampede. Kids — 2,000 of them — burst through the cafeteria doors, pushing and shoving, funneled through the serving area like ants in an ant farm.
Among them is Stephanie Hernandez. It's her first day here at the city's oldest public school. She is 17, pretty with long black hair, and as a junior enrolled in the math and science magnet program she spends the entire day on the third floor, away from "the kids who tag and the kids who ditch." The cafeteria, unfortunately, is on the first floor. By the time Hernandez hefts her books and races downstairs, the lunch line is enormous. By the time she gets within arm's reach of the food itself, the bell signaling the end of 30 minutes rings.
Lunch is over. Her empty stomach growls. That afternoon, she can't concentrate.
At home, her dad urges her to try again. He's a single father, an electrician, and his income qualifies her for a free, federally subsidized school lunch.
So she tries again ... and fails. Same the next day. And the next.
Her friend Jose Anaya doesn't even bother with the line. It's ridiculous. Besides, he won't eat the food.
"They're like lethal weapons," he says of the stiff, cold french fries. Like dozens of other kids, he buys contraband muffins from a Spanish teacher, Mercedes Salvador, who buys them in bulk from Costco and parcels them out for a buck, then reinvests the profits in more food.
It's against LAUSD rules to sell to students, and she's been warned. But if she stops, kids go hungry. She can't afford hungry, distracted students, since her teaching is being judged on test scores. It's a Sophie's Choice played out in snack foods.
Across town, at Wilson High School in El Sereno, 17-year-olds Xotchil Lopez and Dinah Aruncion are trying to eat healthier. Though Aruncion wants to lose weight, she's looking at a Los Angeles Unified School District pepperoni pizza for lunch. It's actually a nutritionally modified pizza, 280 calories a slice. But Aruncion doesn't know that because the district doesn't tell kids the nutritional value of food. To her, it might as well be Domino's.
Lopez aspires to veganism but refuses the vegetarian sweet-and-sour meal that the district has painstakingly taste-tested some 30,000 times. The school district says it's one of the most popular items. But Lopez sees it as "disgusting."
This, then, is lunch in Los Angeles public schools: impossibly short lunch breaks, processed food, unappetizing meals. Even the nutritious items can look so unappealing that kids pass them up.
Seventy-five percent of the students in LAUSD come from homes with incomes below the federal poverty level. To many of them, any food — even school food — is better than nothing. Yet parents have long been irate over the quality of food at school breakfasts and lunch. Many have fought for years for improvements — and the district has made some big, worthwhile changes.
LAUSD administrators say other school districts look to Los Angeles with admiration, asking, "How do you do it?" How do you feed 671,648 kids 180 days a year — 121 million meals in all — for only 77 cents a meal? Truly, it's a Herculean task. But it has not been enough.
Critics continue to ask a simple question: Why can't the district provide appetizing, nutritional meals, cooked on-site, and give students enough time to eat? As Emily Ventura, social action chairwoman of Slow Food L.A., the nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting fair food production and consumption, says: "A protein, a vegetable, a carbohydrate, a piece of fruit and a glass of water. How hard is that?"
The answer is that the lunch program of the nation's second-largest district has deep and intractable problems. Hunger and obesity coexist. Misperceptions abound — about what the district thinks kids won't eat, about what food advocates think the district thinks, about what parents believe kids are eating, about what kids actually will eat. School principals beg the district to stop sending them grapes because there aren't enough janitors to sweep the floor after lunch period is over. Well-meaning teachers violate district rules by selling food to hungry students for pennies on the dollar.
As David Binkle, deputy director of food services at LAUSD, says, "The school lunch program is the greatest hidden treasure in America. The problem is, it's broken."
And the problem is that there isn't just one problem. There are many.
Bad and Ugly
The national school lunch program was created after World War II to alleviate childhood hunger. Today, many school districts manage to provide meals that are both appetizing and nutritional, often cooked on-site. However, those meals are found mostly in school districts with more money to spend per meal than L.A. Unified has.