Saturday, April 28, 2007


By Joel Stein, LA Times Columnist

April 27, 2007 Unless you were in jail, at a state-run nursing facility or flying coach on Aeroflot, you had a better lunch than I did Wednesday. Armed with only bravery, a spork and the odd decision to have a light breakfast, I entered the cafeteria at Garfield High School in East L.A. You cannot imagine how difficult it is, at 35, to suss out the cool kids' table.

Garfield is one of 11 public schools that in January started a pilot program to improve lunches. As food has become politicized, what we feed students has become a battleground. Liberal Whole Foods Market shoppers worry about fat kids downing sodas and Fritos at school, and fat kids worry about liberal Whole Foods shoppers taking away their sodas and Fritos. Bet on the Whole Foods shoppers. As tenacious as a fat kid can be when you're trying to grab his Mountain Dew, no one can outlast a yuppie talking about organic labeling.

So Board of Education President Marlene Canter is trying to improve L.A. Unified's lunches. And she wanted me to eat a mesquite baked chicken with her. When you work alone at home, you don't turn down many lunch offers.

After banning candy, sodas and all desserts, Canter wrangled grants from Kaiser Permanente, the California Endowment and the Gilbert Foundation to hire Andrea Giancoli, a registered nutritionist who has been on Bravo's "Top Chef." Los Angeles was not going to hire a school nutrition coordinator who didn't have a head shot.

Making school lunches more nutritious, Giancoli explained, isn't easy. Almost 80% of students in L.A. public schools qualify for free lunches, for which the Department of Agriculture contributes $2.40 a meal and the city pitches in nothing. The kids who can afford lunch are charged only $1. Because of overhead, only about 60 cents of food gets on the plate. But as I would learn, it looks like at least 70 cents.

And you can't just put sprout wraps on the menu. Because — even though lunch is free and there's nowhere else to eat — a huge percentage of students happily hunger strike until 3 p.m. Not only isn't that healthy, but when they don't hand in their food ticket, the school loses $2.40. So if kids want nachos, kids get nachos. And kids totally want nachos.

Although new Supt. David L. Brewer has been able to sneak some whole-grain pizza, baked French fries and turkey corndogs onto the menu, kids have super-senses when it comes to low-fat cheese on their pizza. So Brewer has been having students taste-test dishes that the food service suppliers are offering. Brewer may have the worst job in the world. He's like a wedding planner for sullen teens.

So my expectations were low as Canter showed me around Garfield's cafeteria. It was redesigned, she excitedly told me, to be like a mall food court. Or, I thought, like a corporate cafeteria. Or like a high school cafeteria.

Plus, she explained, the food stations now have innovative signs telling me what I was eating. And they posted a menu for the week, which she hopes to get online soon. I knew it was inappropriate, but I desperately wanted to give Canter a hug.

When we sat down to eat, I found the food all right — at least blessedly succotash- and casserole-free. That mesquite chicken was decent, and there were even cups of fresh strawberries and cut melon. Sure, the chicken parmesan was made of some kind of pressed chicken, and the "grande burger" was a bit gummy with soy filling. Even the guy who ran the cafeteria noted that the vegan barbecue rib sandwich was a hard sell because the kids were spoiled from McDonald's McRib. That's got to be a hard thing to admit.

Student Eduardo Escalante Jr. sat next to me and told me he doesn't eat all day until he gets home. "It tastes like cheap microwave food," he said. When pressed about the improvements, he said that "it used to taste like cheaper microwave food." When Canter asked me what Escalante said, I kind of lied. She's working so hard to do the impossible — serve an edible $2.40 lunch to fast-food-savvy kids from different cultures in a place that doesn't have a real kitchen — that I had to let her dream.

Maybe she'll get farmers' markets to come to schools on weekends so parents can become familiar with champagne grapes and kohlrabi. Even if she doesn't, at least these kids know the school cares about them. Which is more than what Whole Foods does. Because it sure doesn't do a salad bar for $2.40.

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