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"They say it's strawberry milk?" someone says. "Strawberries don't taste like that. We're teaching children that food should taste artificial. Why don't we give them real strawberries? And chocolate doesn't taste like that, either, by the way."
Cook grabs a plastic milk container and with a hearty "Get the jugs, people!" the group marches to LAUSD's front steps. One mom plays Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me" on a boom box. Another mom, Diana Starr, passes around a photo of a typical LAUSD elementary school lunch — potato wedges, sweet-and-sour tofu chicken, frozen chocolate dessert, strawberry milk. Parents take turns getting indignant over it.
Their fury is for naught. The meeting can't be stormed. It's been canceled.
Such is the lot of the constantly rotating cast of angry parents trying to get answers and force changes in school meals. Parent after parent tells stories of banging on LAUSD's doors, eventually getting frustrated and giving up, only to be replaced by another generation of parents embarking on the same path.
A few days after the thwarted protest, the two head honchos of LAUSD Food Services, Binkle and Barrett, visited Starr's Lomita Magnet Elementary, where her 7-year-old son is a student and 57 percent of the students come from households with an income below the federal poverty level. Binkle and Barrett went to the school ostensibly to answer questions about the food. They showed up with a PowerPoint presentation.
"We could barely get a word in edgewise," Starr says.
After school, Starr and her friends are headed to McDonald's. The irony of the scene is rich: Moms sitting around a table at McDonald's, kvetching about lack of nutrition in school lunch.
On the table in front of Starr is the photo of the sweet-and-sour meal she brought to the milk protest. Administrators say that dish is one of their most popular. But kids at Starr's son's school cry when they see it, she says. They must cry a lot: Vegetarian Sweet & Sour with Brown Rice is on the menu every single day in both the elementary and secondary schools.
"We were watching the kindergartners open their lunches," Starr says. "Here's this little boy, we're talking freshly 5. And he's struggling with the plastic, picking it out of his mouth, trying to get to the pizza. Now think about the plastic. They heat it up. It's gonna seep into the food. It's so scary."
Starr recalls a PTA president who found many gorgeous fresh bananas in trash cans, thrown there by young kids who didn't know how to peel them. Eating bananas might be easier with mom or dad's help, but the district doesn't allow parents to sit with their own children during school meals.
Starr and her husband moved here from Seattle. She used to laugh at the "granola moms" up there, with their organic beef and cruelty-free eggs. But then one day she poked her head into the cafeteria at her son's school in L.A. They were serving a breaded chicken patty on a bun. No condiments. Milk. And potato wedges. "I said where's the freaking vegetable. And they said that is the vegetable."
She stopped letting him buy school food.
Stay-at-home mom Carmen Joseph once visited a New Orleans school that blew her mind. Kindergartners sat at round tables, eating salads, with pitchers of water and cups in the middle, and a parent to guide them. "They were the quietest bunch of kids I've ever seen."
Ereida Garcia's kids go to Wilson, but they've attended other schools. In San Diego, they had a burrito stand, a burger stand, smoothies and a large salad bar with fruits and yogurt. In Portland, Ore., the cafeteria ladies whipped up fresh pancakes for breakfast. Garcia herself is a Class of '91 graduate of Pasadena High School, which is not part of LAUSD. She took her kids on a tour of its cafeteria, which they promptly fell in love with. "Why can't we have that here?" Garcia asks.
Garcia fought hard during her daughter's first two years at Wilson, and tried in vain with 80 other parents to get a salad bar. When that didn't happen, they sold mangoes, oranges and cucumbers for $1 a bag, reinvesting the proceeds into school field trips or equipment. When kids couldn't get through the cafeteria line, the parents sold tortas with tomatoes, potatoes and meat for lunch at the school Parent Center. Administrators told them to stop, saying the food was a health hazard.
Garcia, like many other frustrated parents, no longer bucks the system. "I gave up," she says.
What's more, the charter school movement siphoned some 100,000 students away from LAUSD in the past decade, stealing some of the best soldiers in the good-food movement. The students who departed were from some of the most organized households, with the most involved parents. They were precisely the people most likely to be able to fight for better school food.
Cook and Ventura attended meeting after meeting over 18 months. "We have a highly evolved food services director in David Binkle," Cook says. "He's working on the Berkeley Eco Literacy program. He's up there writing food nutrition policy for them. And then he comes down here and gives our kids frozen, processed dog food in a different container and calls it lunch?