By Joel Stein, LA Times Columnist
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."
Making school lunches more nutritious, Giancoli explained, isn't easy. Almost 80% of students in
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 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
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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