L.A. Unified student stores feed appetite for alternative lunches
The more than 160 student stores on L.A. Unified campuses have more autonomy than cafeterias in what they offer, and provide a boost to schools' slashed budgets.
By Marisa Gerber, Los Angeles Times | http://lat.ms/Q4lLfi
Schools eat up challenge of new federal nutrition standards
At the recent California School Nutrition Assn.'s annual conference, 11 teams competed to concoct healthier fare that even children would like.
By Dalina Castellanos, Los Angeles Times | http://lat.ms/WfTSPr
Laura Zapata, left, and Marisol Camarena, 15-year-old 11th-graders at Miguel Contreras Learning Complex in Los Angeles, eat snacks they purchased at the student store during lunch period on a recent Friday. For students, the stores provide an alternative to cafeteria food. For the schools, the stores provide a much-needed cash supplement for their slashed budgets. Proceeds pay for such things as athletic uniforms, school dances and graduation decorations. (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles Times / November 9, 2012)
November 20, 2012 :: On the menu at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex cafeteria on a recent Friday was petite beef patties on whole wheat buns, a cup of roasted potato wedges, an apple and a carton of 1% milk.
Together, the carefully portioned and paired foods amounted to about 730 calories — safely below a recently implemented 850-calorie cap for high school lunches.
But walk out of the cafeteria, through the circle of giggling cheerleaders and the huddle of boys eyeing them, to the long line of students snaking around a corner and you'll find another option: the student store.
With a few crumpled bills and a smile at the woman running it, a sophomore makes off with an alternative lunch: a bag of cheese balls; a bottle of pineapple, peach and mango juice; three packages of brown sugar Pop-Tarts; and a strawberry ice cream bar. The items equated to 1,200 calories.
Unlike the Los Angeles Unified School District's cafeterias, which are managed by its food services department, the more than 160 student stores on middle and high school campuses have a bit more autonomy.
For students, the stores provide an alternative to the cafeteria food one sophomore described as "meh" and a junior called "crazy healthy." For the schools, the stores provide a much-needed cash supplement for their slashed budgets. Proceeds pay for such things as athletic uniforms, school dances and graduation decorations.
At Miguel Contreras, Marisol Morataya is the snack bar czar.
The 20-year-old started working at the student store her junior year and was hired to stay on as an office assistant after graduating.
"Gimme two fishies," a boy said.
Morataya laughed as she handed him two bags of Goldfish crackers with her left hand and his change with her right. "Next," she said.
A dark-eyed boy barked his order — a school beanie and a bottle of water — over the music blaring out of his earphones. Morataya took a $50 bill from him and squinted her eyes at it. "Yup, he's real."
When things get busy, Luke Shen mans the store's second window.
On a recent Friday, the school's financial manager ran his left hand through his hair as he tallied snack sales on a calculator. So far this year the school has made about $7,300 a month on drink and snack sales, he said, but there's still never enough money to go around.
Shen also patrols the school's vending machines. The companies that stock them usually stick to district-approved items, he said, but not always. Last year, for example, he spotted Flamin' Hot Cheetos behind the glass and had them removed.
"They want the business," Shen said. "But we say, 'If it's not on the list, it's not going to happen.' "
Despite a 7-year-old district policy requiring that snacks meet nutritional standards, the stores end up selling snacks that are "kind of hit-and-miss," said David Binkle, the district's interim director of food services.
"People don't know the rules," Binkle said. "Some student stores go to Costco and buy whatever the kids will eat."
Faced with an onslaught of complaints from students about the new healthful food options last year, L.A. Unified scaled them back a bit. Instead of quinoa, for example, burgers are back — albeit without the cheese.
So far the changes seem to be paying off, Binkle said, noting that more students are eating in cafeterias this year than last. The nation's second-largest district serves about 650,000 meals a day.
But for Amilcar Martinez, the cafeteria's changes aren't enough.
"The cafeteria food is meh," the sophomore said as he shoved his hand into the 50-cent bag of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal from the student store.
Campus stores aren't the only way around the nutrition requirements. Crafty students sell prohibited items while others get food from off-campus fast food joints.
On a recent day at Roosevelt High School, for example, a baseball player hawked Flamin' Hot Cheetos for a buck a bag and a group of juniors had a friend's mom bring them food from off campus — a pile of tortilla chips drenched with liquid cheese, sour cream and a heaping serving of carne asada.
The district, meanwhile, is attempting to market its food options as best it can. A few weeks ago, for example, officials invited a group of elementary school students and their parents to a meal — served on china — with former White House chef Walter Scheib. If they can convince young students that healthful options are cool, the district reasons, perhaps the message will catch.
Before asking the group to pledge to curb junk food and eat more healthfully, Scheib acknowledged how hard it can be.
"It's like stopping smoking," he said. "It's an ugly and brutal process."
Contestants place their finished dishes out to be judged as chefs from California school districts competed at the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Pasadena to try their skills with new school food rules. (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles Times / November 10, 2012)
November 19, 2012 :: Sizzling saucepans, men and women in chef pants running with pots of water and frantic cries for salt made the cooking stations at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena like a scene from a show on the Food Network.
Further enhancing the resemblance were boxes of mystery ingredients: acorn squash, alfredo sauce, persimmons, a pineapple and animal-shaped graham crackers.
But the frenzy wasn't a taping of the show "Chopped." It was the recent California School Nutrition Assn.'s annual conference.
Teams from 11 school districts participated in the cooking competition to highlight new federal nutrition standards and the chefs' ability to turn them into creative dishes that appeal to the pickiest consumers.
"These are the real Top Chefs," said Mary Lou Fulton, a senior program manager for the California Endowment, a nonprofit health foundation that organized the event. "They are cooking for the most important people of all: our kids."
The new standards include more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and no trans-fats, changes that some California schools have already implemented and morphed into a way of life. The Los Angeles Unified School District adopted a new food policy last week, ensuring that the state's largest school system buys organic produce and free-range animal products.
The Oakland Unified School District receives fresh produce from nearby farms and has 23 produce markets on some school campuses to encourage students to continue healthy eating at home.
"It's been a challenge because we're dealing with students," said Roslynn DeCuir, a food service employee in Oakland. "They eat with their eyes, and they might not recognize some of what is on their plates."
That challenge, DeCuir said, is what drives the cooks to be innovative. "This competition is a great opportunity to get creative."
The teams had 30 minutes to plan a kid-centric meal, prepare the ingredients and cook a plate for each of the four judges using the new federal guidelines. (They didn't have to use only the mystery ingredients.)
"We usually have an apron decorating contest," said Margan Holloway, president of the California School Nutrition Assn. "But the federal nutrition guidelines haven't changed since 1995. Now that they have, we thought this would be more meaningful than an apron."
Some teams weighed their ingredients before plating them; some stared at the acorn squash, perplexed. Other conference participants sat in the gallery chanting their district's team name, as if attending a political rally. "Give Peas a Chance! Give Peas a Chance!" said several, referring to a team from Palm Springs.
The changing landscape in school cafeterias is a result of education officials and elected leaders taking a larger interest in students' well-being, Fulton said.
Her colleague at the California Endowment, Judi Larsen, agreed but added that the guidelines are only the start of what needs to change.
"When we think about this opportunity, we also have to think about presenting in a more well-rounded approach," Larsen said, noting that time constraints may not allow for schoolchildren to finish their meals. "We have a ways to go, but this is a good first step."
In the end, the Cuisine Queens from the Antelope Valley Union High School District took first place with their chicken alfredo on whole wheat pasta, and a pineapple and persimmon fruit salad with a sweet honey yogurt and lemon croutons.
Anaheim Union High School District placed second, and DeCuir's Oakland team took third.
"Honestly, we thought we'd find things in [the mystery box] that we wouldn't be able to pronounce," said Nancy VanGinkle of the Anaheim team, which whipped up chicken tacos and stir-fried zucchini.
The only ingredient each team left out?
"That acorn squash really stumped us," VanGinkle said.