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Los Angeles offers healthy new school lunches. Will children eat them?

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Chefs at Los Angeles schools — largely responsible for providing the primary source of daily nutrition for tens of thousands of children — served up new back-to-school options Friday, a latest effort to provide healthy yet appealing food for young taste buds. But in the world of Flamin’ Hot Cheeto, will the students eat the school food?

Enter turkey, ham and cheese croissants for breakfast. Nashville hot chicken tenders and honey cookies, mango smoothies and meatball sandwiches for lunch.

“It’s good,” diminutive third-grader Antonio Plascenzia wrote on his evaluation form, which he intended as high praise. He polished off his croissant sandwich before moving on to the next item on the tray.

Feeding Los Angeles’ children has long been an imperative in the nation’s second-largest school district. About 80% of students are from low-income families and many struggle with food insecurity. A parent’s long work schedule can be an added challenge to cooking, let alone healthy. Each school day, LA Unified’s $180 million-a-year program serves more than 300,000 breakfasts, about 285,000 lunches and about 70,000 early evening meals.

During the 13 months of forced school closures due to the pandemic, LA Unified filled the void of hunger by offering food for the takerssurpassing the generosity and spending of many other school systems during the crisis.

LAUSD Supp. Alberto M. Carvalho added his own reviews: “The new cinnamon buns are delicious. Kung Pao chicken, honey glazed brown rice and broccoli is delicious.”

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

“A disproportionate number of our children live in poverty,” said Supt. Alberto Carvalho said on Friday. “We offer breakfast and lunch for free — no questions asked — to every child in our school system. We address food insecurity in our community by providing nutritious, healthy food options. They are also attractive. Why is this important? Hungry children do not learn well.”

And he added his feedback: “The new cinnamon buns are very tasty. Kung Pao chicken, honey glazed brown rice and broccoli is delicious.”

The products were prepared in the kitchen of the Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts downtown for about 30 generally satisfied student tasters. But this setting is a far cry from the mass-produced central kitchens from which things are trucked to campuses.

The central kitchen system was an impediment to taste, despite quality ingredients and a menu that met or exceeded federal guidelines. That’s because many hot meals essentially look like reheated leftovers by the time they’re served to students.

At overcrowded LA Unified in the 1990s, efficiency was a priority in food preparation, with food prepared in school cafeterias taken over by central kitchens and prepackaged food stations installed to support long lines. Many of the more than 100 new campuses lacked functional kitchens. And during the reconstruction of existing schools, kitchen equipment was often removed.

Student tester Sebastien Chun, a year 11 student at Chatsworth High School, spoke about his unpleasant experience when he received a burger with mold.

About 40% of menu items can now be prepared in schools. Food managers have changed the way they cook by adding, for example, more salads that can be assembled on site, rethinking other recipes and getting new equipment. The goal is to achieve fast food, where everything is done quickly but as homemade as possible, said Manish Singh, the district’s food service director.

A girl gives a rating after trying a dish on the menu.

Tinia Wilson, 9, a fourth-grader at Compton Avenue Elementary School, records her impressions of LA Unified’s new menu items.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Singh proudly pointed out to one student that all the sweetness in a strawberry shake comes from the yogurt and fruit. No added sugar. Also no nitrates, no sulfites, no artificial colors, no artificial flavors.

Sebastien was impressed with the ramen bowl: “The flavor is what I would expect to see in a restaurant, which is really amazing.”

But sophomore Faith Posada found her ramen too bland: “It has no flavor.” However, she gave the croissant and cinnamon roll a “10 out of 10”.

Of course, generations of students everywhere have complained about school lunches. But for all the complaints, LA Unified has been a leader in some innovations.

LA Unified was among was the first to ban soda and prepackaged junk food. The district then switched to healthier options, switching in 2011 from chicken nuggets, corn dogs, nachos and other foods high in fat, sugar and sodium to black bean burgers, tostadas, quinoa salad, veggie curry and fresh pears. But fewer students ate those lunches, often substituting Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and soda from their backpacks.

A healthier diet may stand a better chance ten years from now. Earlier pandemic, for example, a group of vegan students and their parents regularly gathered at school board meetings demanding what foods they liked.

Among the testers on Friday was Karen Ramirez, 16, a vegetarian who wished there were more options. But the mango smoothie was promising: “I like the idea of ​​it. But I think it could have tasted less like a yogurt with a bit more emphasis on the mango.”

LA Unified has tried to innovate in a number of ways, with initiatives to source local ingredients and use its purchasing power to influence farming practices. About seven years ago, when the school board set new standards for how providers should treat your birdtheir workers and the environment, contract negotiations with two of the nation’s largest suppliers collapsed, resulting in virtually no chicken on the school lunch menu for a year.

Tacos and meatball sandwiches on a tray

Tacos and meatball sandwiches were among the items students could sample.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

The county has also tried to curb food waste, but it still has a long way to go.

There was longing on the way – chocolate milk was forbidden and then returned after the students did not drink regular milk. The breaded chicken was removed, then returned.

There was also labor intrigue — the school board approved health benefits for part-time cafeteria workers, even though it left the food program running short at the time. On the other hand, the policy also provided vital health insurance for low-wage workers and their families.

And, as befits a school district that includes Hollywood, there was even drama — the district refused to let the famous superintendent Jamie Oliver to shoot the show on their campuses – and a real crime if the chief district food official and chef was convicted of forgery at the request of the district seller.

Jaelyn Johnson, a high school senior attending King-Drew Medical Magnet, wasn’t too keen on the school meals. She remembers getting sick after eating in elementary school, and in middle school she recalled hurried intercom warnings not to drink milk or yogurt after someone noticed they had expired.

In high school, when she forgot her lunch from home, she would often starve instead of eating the student food. She said it affected her energy levels and ability to concentrate. And she is not the only one: “Sometimes it comes to the point that teachers have to bring snacks. I had a teacher who had a PB and a J [peanut butter and jelly] station for students’.

But she was upbeat on Friday: “I’m really enjoying some of the options. I really liked the variety.”

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