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By Jill Stewart
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"Because it doesn't do anything for you?" says one third-grade girl.
"Gold star," Baida says. "I need you to help me help you."
His posole — hand-chopped chicken breast, lime, cilantro, red bell peppers, no added sodium, hominy "so white and clean" — is a success. Out of 40 kids, only four give it the thumbs-down. Their responses will be input into a database. This is cooking by committee.
Newman was built to process 8,000 meals a day. Today, it pumps out a staggering 250,000. Consequently, space is cramped and the name of the game is speed. Automation. Heat and serve.
"This facility was supposed to be one of many throughout the city," Binkle says with a rueful smile. "They never built the other ones. They didn't have the money."
Cook, of Food for Lunch, has a somewhat different view: "Instead of whole foods, they still have this antiquated idea that they should be serving a hot meal for 77 cents for breakfast and lunch. Why would they even think that's possible? At 77 cents a meal?"
Back at lunch at Los Angeles High, Stephanie Hernandez has learned a few lessons. Keep your meal ticket hidden so bullies don't jack it. Make friends with those who will save you a place in line. Create a distraction so the monitors don't see you do it. Let other kids at the back of the line be the ones running out of time.
All's fair in war and lunch.
Each LAUSD school works out its own daily meal schedule. The only requirement is that the last child in line must have 20 minutes to eat. That's a pipe dream.
The district, which serves a meal on average every 10 seconds, is perfectly aware that students don't get enough time to eat. Everyone, really, is aware of it — district administrators, principals, teachers, cafeteria workers, parents, the kids themselves. Yet the situation persists.
"Everybody's pointing the finger at someone else," says CFPA nutrition policy advocate Nicola Edwards.
"Kids get less time to eat because teachers want more time to teach," Binkle says. Teachers, Matt Sharp suspects, don't want to stay at school a minute longer than they already do.
Why doesn't LAUSD simply lengthen the school day to provide more time for students to eat?
"I've been asking that myself," Barrett says.
The district says the teachers union is responsible. "The length of the school day would need to be negotiated with the staff per their contract," explains Robert Alaniz, LAUSD director of communications. "Changing the length of the day changes their working conditions and is a negotiated item."
But the teachers union bounces responsibility right back to LAUSD: "This has nothing to do with the UTLA contract," counters A.J. Duffy, president of the United Teachers Los Angeles.
It's an endless game of pass-the-buck.
Here is another part of the problem: From 1992 to 2005, as a result of childbirth and immigration, the LAUSD school population increased by hundreds of thousands of students — to its current level of nearly 672,000.
Within such a system, things that should be simple become complicated.
Things like salad bars. What could be easier? Raw vegetables cut up. Dressings. Croutons. Serve yourself. But of the 1,092 LAUSD schools, kindergarten through 12th grade, only 35 have a salad bar.
"Salad bars sound wonderful," Binkle says. But to the district, they are a logistical nightmare. Kids touch the food, then put it back, causing contamination and sanitation issues.
Salad bars also require time — time for 1,000 kids in a line to make choices on each salad item, time to replenish the items, time to sit and chew. They might work somewhere like France, where kids get a minimum of an hour and a half for lunch — 30 minutes to eat, 30 minutes to play, then another 30 minutes to eat some more. Here in L.A., it's far easier to dole out a plastic-wrapped burrito you can hold with one hand and eat while walking down a hallway.
At one point, someone within the district created a handy Meal Period Calculator tool — an Excel spreadsheet, essentially. Type in the number of students at a school and it spits out how many windows and lunch periods the site should have. Currently, there is no requirement saying the tool should be used.
But imagine if each spring, when principals request approval for their next year's schedule, funding is denied unless the school uses the Meal Period Calculator to ensure kids have time to eat.
"We've been talking about this for four consecutive springs," Sharp says.
What has the response been?
"Well, the phone ain't ringing."
A bunch of angry moms (and a few dads) are huddled together on a street corner downtown near LAUSD headquarters. It is Valentine's Day 2011. They are protesting sugary, flavored milk, which has been called "soda in drag."
Cook, Ventura, Sharp and others have carved an hour out of their Monday afternoon to storm the LAUSD Cafeteria Improvement Meeting. The district had asked Cook and Ventura to demonstrate parent support for removing sugar-laden strawberry and chocolate milk from menus — so here they are.
The women summon their network of angry moms. Maybe 50 show. However, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, star of reality TV show Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, arrives with cameras, which holds the promise of building more support.