Why Los Angeles Schoolkids Get Lousy Meals 

Thursday, Jun 16 2011

Page 5 of 7

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.

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

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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."

Angry Moms

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.

"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.

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