Why Los Angeles Schoolkids Get Lousy Meals 

Thursday, Jun 16 2011

Page 4 of 7

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.

click to flip through (12) PHOTO BY GREGORY BOJORQUEZ - A recent lunch at Wilson High School in El Sereno

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"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?

"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?"

No Time

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."

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