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To make processed food appetizing, school officials have an elaborate system for taste-testing, serving each dish to thousands of students and asking their opinions.
Take hummus. Studies show that kids will eat what they've been taught to eat and that it takes from 10 to 50 exposures before they'll accept a new food. Nutrition activist Matt Sharp of California Food Policy Advocates says that kids in Marin County, for instance, ask for hummus and lentils. It's what they're eating at home. It's what they've been eating since they were 3 or 4 years old.
LAUSD, however, didn't budge on hummus. "We've tested hummus six different times with children," Food Services Director Barrett says. "They've rejected it. We've even tried flavored hummus. They just don't like that texture in their mouth in Los Angeles."
Same with yogurt. "We brought up plain yogurt," Cook says of her last encounter with LAUSD administrators. "They looked at us like we wanted to serve cow eyeballs to the kids."
Ventura says the district could "make the plain yogurt work if you pair it with a fruit side, or granola. They were trying to put it with things that just won't work, like a hard-boiled egg. If you come into it with negative energy, like, 'Here's this gross plain yogurt,' they're not gonna like it. I could get them into plain yogurt, no problem. You have to have an enthusiastic person who's eating it with them."
Aside from that, many parents would like to see the district tell kids what they are eating, and educate them. As the argument goes, kids don't have to choose the unhealthy stuff. They might eat better if they were taught how to do it.
But the district does little to educate students. Signs on the wall above heating trays at Los Angeles High School proclaim: "Apples are made of 25 percent air, that is why they float," and "Most consumed vegetable in the U.S. = potato." That's not education, it's trivia.
Absent any attempt to inform students, the district is left to cater to their whims and often bad eating habits. "They're learning that french fries are served in school, therefore they must be good to eat," Sharp says. "They're not skipping one food one day to eat something else. They're just eating all of it all of the time."
Everyone who delves into the world of school food eventually hits upon a basic tension: Should the food reflect America, or lead America? LAUSD's menu of frozen, heat-and-serve meals is largely reflective of eating habits.
"In terms of the general dietary habit of pizza for lunch, or a 24-pack of nuggets at Mickey D's for dinner, LAUSD is not challenging the dominant eating culture," Sharp says.
77 Cents a Meal
The question most often asked by parents the Weekly spoke to for this story was this: "Why only 77 cents on food?" Why does the district spend just 77 cents per meal when the superintendent makes $275,000 a year with a company car and a driver? (New Superintendent John Deasy would have made $330,000 but he turned down the $55,000 raise from his old deputy position, given the district's dire financial straits.)
"Could the district choose to spend more on a meal?" asks Barrett. "Yes, they could. If they had it. They don't have it."
In truth, the district spends a total of $2.49 per meal — and is reimbursed for it by the federal government. The $2.49 is based on what USDA economists estimate a healthy meal costs. But of that amount, just 77 cents goes to food. Why? First, subtract $1.42 for labor and benefits. Subtract 12 cents for supplies. Subtract 18 cents for operating expenses.
That leaves 77 cents.
In a comparison with 49 other large districts, Los Angeles spends at the very top of the heap on labor — twice as much as it does on food.
How did this happen? One big reason is that in 2007, the school board voted to give its 2,300 part-time cafeteria employees a fourth hour of work each day, up from three. The purpose was to qualify them for full health benefits — family medical, vision and dental. It was a huge win for organized labor, but it cost the already cash-strapped district $105 million over three years. Every penny paid for benefits is a penny not available for food.
"It's a perfect illustration of an unfair choice," Sharp says.
LAUSD is projecting a $408 million budget shortfall for next year. It plans to lay off 5,000 teachers and 2,000 support personnel come June 30 if the district doesn't receive more money from the state. In the last two years, the district has laid off more than 2,700 teachers, nurses, mental health counselors and librarians.
In this climate, is it any wonder that food quality suffers?
Meals served at LAUSD schools are assembled in a factorylike plant called the Newman Center, located east of downtown near USC's medical campus. The scene there is not Upton Sinclair's The Jungle by any means. But it isn't Martha Stewart, either.
Taste-testing at Newman is what passes for field trips in LAUSD these days. A hundred kids are bused to the center daily. They sit at 10 little tables, three kids each, three shifts per day. Master of ceremonies chef Mark Baida — gregarious, animated, the Willy Wonka of this surreal factory — teaches kids about the flavor points on a tongue. Today they're rating his chicken posole. Each item is tested 30,000 times. Is it too salty? Too sweet? Too spicy? It's dangerous to serve food that kids won't eat. Imagine the horror of buying 100,000 burritos that don't get consumed — or reimbursed. Baida doesn't want to hear "eeeww" or "nasty" or even "good," he says. Can anybody tell him why?