Monday, June 20, 2011


by Gendy Alimurung/ photos by GREGORY BOJORQUEZ | LA Weekly |


a parent from Central HS#9, the soon-to-be Ramon Cortines High School for the Visual and Performing Arts, writes 4LAKids:

This is a MUST READ!

Kids don't have enough time to eat at LAUSD schools, tens of thousands of kids don't bother standing in line to get their 77 cent meal.  The school day needs to be extended to give kids a decent chance to eat.  Duffy (formerly) of the teacher's union says says the contract won't prohibit it (he's probably lying, but let's call the union on this).  As a pilot school we can do this... our kids need a chance to eat a meal.


Thursday, Jun 16 2011 - At 12:33 p.m., the lunch bell rings at Los Angeles High School. Moments later comes the stampede. Kids — 2,000 of them — burst through the cafeteria doors, pushing and shoving, funneled through the serving area like ants in an ant farm.

Among them is Stephanie Hernandez. It's her first day here at the city's oldest public school. She is 17, pretty with long black hair, and as a junior enrolled in the math and science magnet program she spends the entire day on the third floor, away from "the kids who tag and the kids who ditch." The cafeteria, unfortunately, is on the first floor. By the time Hernandez hefts her books and races downstairs, the lunch line is enormous. By the time she gets within arm's reach of the food itself, the bell signaling the end of 30 minutes rings.

Lunch is over. Her empty stomach growls. That afternoon, she can't concentrate.

At home, her dad urges her to try again. He's a single father, an electrician, and his income qualifies her for a free, federally subsidized school lunch.

So she tries again ... and fails. Same the next day. And the next.

Her friend Jose Anaya doesn't even bother with the line. It's ridiculous. Besides, he won't eat the food.

"They're like lethal weapons," he says of the stiff, cold french fries. Like dozens of other kids, he buys contraband muffins from a Spanish teacher, Mercedes Salvador, who buys them in bulk from Costco and parcels them out for a buck, then reinvests the profits in more food.

It's against LAUSD rules to sell to students, and she's been warned. But if she stops, kids go hungry. She can't afford hungry, distracted students, since her teaching is being judged on test scores. It's a Sophie's Choice played out in snack foods.

Across town, at Wilson High School in El Sereno, 17-year-olds Xotchil Lopez and Dinah Aruncion are trying to eat healthier. Though Aruncion wants to lose weight, she's looking at a Los Angeles Unified School District pepperoni pizza for lunch. It's actually a nutritionally modified pizza, 280 calories a slice. But Aruncion doesn't know that because the district doesn't tell kids the nutritional value of food. To her, it might as well be Domino's.

Lopez aspires to veganism but refuses the vegetarian sweet-and-sour meal that the district has painstakingly taste-tested some 30,000 times. The school district says it's one of the most popular items. But Lopez sees it as "disgusting."

This, then, is lunch in Los Angeles public schools: impossibly short lunch breaks, processed food, unappetizing meals. Even the nutritious items can look so unappealing that kids pass them up.

Seventy-five percent of the students in LAUSD come from homes with incomes below the federal poverty level. To many of them, any food — even school food — is better than nothing. Yet parents have long been irate over the quality of food at school breakfasts and lunch. Many have fought for years for improvements — and the district has made some big, worthwhile changes.

LAUSD administrators say other school districts look to Los Angeles with admiration, asking, "How do you do it?" How do you feed 671,648 kids 180 days a year — 121 million meals in all — for only 77 cents a meal? Truly, it's a Herculean task. But it has not been enough.

Critics continue to ask a simple question: Why can't the district provide appetizing, nutritional meals, cooked on-site, and give students enough time to eat? As Emily Ventura, social action chairwoman of Slow Food L.A., the nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting fair food production and consumption, says: "A protein, a vegetable, a carbohydrate, a piece of fruit and a glass of water. How hard is that?"

The answer is that the lunch program of the nation's second-largest district has deep and intractable problems. Hunger and obesity coexist. Misperceptions abound — about what the district thinks kids won't eat, about what food advocates think the district thinks, about what parents believe kids are eating, about what kids actually will eat. School principals beg the district to stop sending them grapes because there aren't enough janitors to sweep the floor after lunch period is over. Well-meaning teachers violate district rules by selling food to hungry students for pennies on the dollar.

As David Binkle, deputy director of food services at LAUSD, says, "The school lunch program is the greatest hidden treasure in America. The problem is, it's broken."

And the problem is that there isn't just one problem. There are many.


The Newman Center, where all school food is processed for LAUSD
The Newman Center, where all school food is processed for LAUSD
The Newman Center, where all school food is processed for LAUSD
The Newman Center, where all school food is processed for LAUSD
Carmen Joseph buys food at the Santa Monica farmers market to help her teach students how to eat healthy.
Carmen Joseph buys food at the Santa Monica farmers market to help her teach students how to eat healthy.
A recent lunch at Wilson High School in El Sereno
A recent lunch at Wilson High School in El Sereno
A recent lunch at Wilson High School in El Sereno
A recent lunch at Wilson High School in El Sereno
A recent lunch at Wilson High School in El Sereno
A recent lunch at Wilson High School in El Sereno
Matt Sharp
Matt Sharp
Dennis Barrett and David Binkle at Bravo Magnet High School cafeteria 
Dennis Barrett and David Binkle at Bravo Magnet High School cafeteria
Jennie Cook and Emily Ventura
Jennie Cook and Emily Ventura
Nicola Edwards
Nicola Edwards
The Newman Center, where all school food is processed for LAUSD The Newman Center, where all school food is processed for LAUSD - ALL PHOTOS BY GREGORY BOJORQUEZ

Bad and Ugly

The national school lunch program was created after World War II to alleviate childhood hunger. Today, many school districts manage to provide meals that are both appetizing and nutritional, often cooked on-site. However, those meals are found mostly in school districts with more money to spend per meal than L.A. Unified has.

The current state of LAUSD's facilities makes the job of feeding kids especially onerous. Schools do not prepare meals from scratch on premises. Knives are not allowed in kitchens. Hot water is verboten. Cafeterias have only warming ovens and shelves with heat lamps.

To save money, in the late 1970s, the district began preparing meals at a central processing center. From there, the meals are sent out to schools where part-time cafeteria workers reheat and serve them. That is cheaper than hiring kitchen staffs at individual schools. Plus, most schools don't even have kitchens. At the 15 percent to 20 percent that do, the kitchens are old and aren't built to modern food-service code.

District officials argue that their meals are nutritional and, according to taste tests by students, appetizing. Sitting at a conference table on the 28th floor of LAUSD headquarters downtown, Food Services Director Dennis Barrett bristles at the idea that lunches aren't healthy. "Maybe somebody didn't heat it all the way through," he concedes. "But the nutritional content? We'll stand behind it 100 percent."

As required by federal law, L.A. Unified's meals do provide the recommended dietary allowances for specific nutrients: vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, and so on. The meals also comply with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's dietary guidelines, although not the current guidelines, issued last year. Instead, the district is following 2005 guidelines.

Yet the issue isn't as simple as meeting those minimums. Doing so does not ensure that food is healthy overall. Indeed, LAUSD's current menu is schizophrenic. The beef corn dog might be prim and proper with 6.2 grams of added sugar, but the orange chicken bowl with brown rice clocks in at a hefty 31.5 grams of sugar, almost as much as a can of Coca-Cola.

Moreover, the district does not cap overall sugar content. High sugar consumption, we now know, is correlated with obesity. The World Health Organization says no more than 10 percent of the day's calories should come from sugar; that means 50 grams total for a 2,000-calorie diet.

The wide variety in menu selections means LAUSD kids can easily select à la carte meals that blast past most definitions of healthy eating, assembling meals high in sugar and sodium without realizing it.

For instance, the coffee cake, a student breakfast favorite, packs 36 grams of added sugar. (Food Services' Binkle says, "We were practically lynched when we tried to take it off the menu.") Add in 29 grams of sugar from fruit punch, and kids are sucking down 65 grams of sugar in a single meal.

It's a similar grim tale with sodium. Six years ago, the USDA dietary guidelines advised a maximum 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, averaged over a week. The agency has since cut the limit to 1,500 mg a day.

Here's how that applies in LAUSD. Over the course of five recent days, students at Los Angeles High School were given menu offerings of an orange chicken bowl (1,120 mg), followed the next day by a cheese sandwich with chicken noodle soup (2,226 mg), then by meat and cheese sauce (1,217 mg), then a deli turkey sub (958 mg) and, finally, a kung pao chicken bowl (602 mg). Wash each main dish down with two cartons of 1 percent white milk (150 mg each) and kids are consuming a daily average of 1,525 milligrams of sodium. For lunch alone.

Ventura, a former nutrition educator at LAUSD, says Binkle once told her: "You have to recognize the food they're getting at school is so much better than the food they're getting at the liquor stores, or fast food, or at home."

"You may be right, David," she replied, "but just because one thing is relatively better than the other doesn't mean it's good. If you want to be a nutritional leader, be a nutritional leader. Don't be slightly better than the worst."

To Jennie Cook, co-founder of nonprofit group Food for Lunch, which advocates fresh, whole foods at schools, the real devil is processing. "Processed food creates compulsive eaters," says Cook, a nutrition activist who started Food for Lunch with pediatrician Rebecca Crane. "It creates sugar addictions. It creates allergies and histamine reactions."

In fairness, the district has been ahead of the curve in certain respects. In 2005, Los Angeles Unified made headlines by banning sodas and chips. This change — the single most important one in LAUSD's food quality in the past decade — was pushed through by then–board member Marlene Canter, who had spoken with a neighbor, pediatric endocrinologist Fran Kaufman, author of the book Diabesity. Kaufman told Canter the district needed to stop selling sodas in school vending machines.

Since then, LAUSD also has eliminated many of the worst offenders in school food — MSG, palm oils, trans fats — and introduced whole wheat, brown rice and vegetarian entrées.

The district also has created healthy versions of some of the typically least healthy fast-food meals. A corn dog on LAUSD's menu isn't your average corn dog — even if few students know it. Burritos, chicken wings, hamburgers, even french fries have been nutritionally modified into healthier versions of traditionally unhealthy foods. Fast food, the rationale goes, is what kids crave. So give it to them. But sneak in the healthiness.

School district food officials say their biggest challenge is to produce healthy food that is both cheap and appealing to students. Healthy meals do no one any good unless they are being eaten. One main element of the district's approach is to give students a number of menu choices each day.

To Cook, Ventura and others, those choices are a big part of the problem. Kids can mix and match, with the result being unhealthy meals. Ventura would rather see a single "grown-up" meal done well, and she could do without the "potato smiles," "cucumber coins," "breakfast surprises" and other items with gimmicky names.

To make processed food appetizing, school officials have an elaborate system for taste-testing, serving each dish to thousands of students and asking their opinions.

Take hummus. Studies show that kids will eat what they've been taught to eat and that it takes from 10 to 50 exposures before they'll accept a new food. Nutrition activist Matt Sharp of California Food Policy Advocates says that kids in Marin County, for instance, ask for hummus and lentils. It's what they're eating at home. It's what they've been eating since they were 3 or 4 years old.

LAUSD, however, didn't budge on hummus. "We've tested hummus six different times with children," Food Services Director Barrett says. "They've rejected it. We've even tried flavored hummus. They just don't like that texture in their mouth in Los Angeles."

Same with yogurt. "We brought up plain yogurt," Cook says of her last encounter with LAUSD administrators. "They looked at us like we wanted to serve cow eyeballs to the kids."

Ventura says the district could "make the plain yogurt work if you pair it with a fruit side, or granola. They were trying to put it with things that just won't work, like a hard-boiled egg. If you come into it with negative energy, like, 'Here's this gross plain yogurt,' they're not gonna like it. I could get them into plain yogurt, no problem. You have to have an enthusiastic person who's eating it with them."

Aside from that, many parents would like to see the district tell kids what they are eating, and educate them. As the argument goes, kids don't have to choose the unhealthy stuff. They might eat better if they were taught how to do it.

But the district does little to educate students. Signs on the wall above heating trays at Los Angeles High School proclaim: "Apples are made of 25 percent air, that is why they float," and "Most consumed vegetable in the U.S. = potato." That's not education, it's trivia.

Absent any attempt to inform students, the district is left to cater to their whims and often bad eating habits. "They're learning that french fries are served in school, therefore they must be good to eat," Sharp says. "They're not skipping one food one day to eat something else. They're just eating all of it all of the time."

Everyone who delves into the world of school food eventually hits upon a basic tension: Should the food reflect America, or lead America? LAUSD's menu of frozen, heat-and-serve meals is largely reflective of eating habits.

"In terms of the general dietary habit of pizza for lunch, or a 24-pack of nuggets at Mickey D's for dinner, LAUSD is not challenging the dominant eating culture," Sharp says.

77 Cents a Meal

The question most often asked by parents the Weekly spoke to for this story was this: "Why only 77 cents on food?" Why does the district spend just 77 cents per meal when the superintendent makes $275,000 a year with a company car and a driver? (New Superintendent John Deasy would have made $330,000 but he turned down the $55,000 raise from his old deputy position, given the district's dire financial straits.)

"Could the district choose to spend more on a meal?" asks Barrett. "Yes, they could. If they had it. They don't have it."

In truth, the district spends a total of $2.49 per meal — and is reimbursed for it by the federal government. The $2.49 is based on what USDA economists estimate a healthy meal costs. But of that amount, just 77 cents goes to food. Why? First, subtract $1.42 for labor and benefits. Subtract 12 cents for supplies. Subtract 18 cents for operating expenses.

That leaves 77 cents.

In a comparison with 49 other large districts, Los Angeles spends at the very top of the heap on labor — twice as much as it does on food.

How did this happen? One big reason is that in 2007, the school board voted to give its 2,300 part-time cafeteria employees a fourth hour of work each day, up from three. The purpose was to qualify them for full health benefits — family medical, vision and dental. It was a huge win for organized labor, but it cost the already cash-strapped district $105 million over three years. Every penny paid for benefits is a penny not available for food.

"It's a perfect illustration of an unfair choice," Sharp says.

LAUSD is projecting a $408 million budget shortfall for next year. It plans to lay off 5,000 teachers and 2,000 support personnel come June 30 if the district doesn't receive more money from the state. In the last two years, the district has laid off more than 2,700 teachers, nurses, mental health counselors and librarians.

In this climate, is it any wonder that food quality suffers?

Meals served at LAUSD schools are assembled in a factorylike plant called the Newman Center, located east of downtown near USC's medical campus. The scene there is not Upton Sinclair's The Jungle by any means. But it isn't Martha Stewart, either.

Taste-testing at Newman is what passes for field trips in LAUSD these days. A hundred kids are bused to the center daily. They sit at 10 little tables, three kids each, three shifts per day. Master of ceremonies chef Mark Baida — gregarious, animated, the Willy Wonka of this surreal factory — teaches kids about the flavor points on a tongue. Today they're rating his chicken posole. Each item is tested 30,000 times. Is it too salty? Too sweet? Too spicy? It's dangerous to serve food that kids won't eat. Imagine the horror of buying 100,000 burritos that don't get consumed — or reimbursed. Baida doesn't want to hear "eeeww" or "nasty" or even "good," he says. Can anybody tell him why?

"Because it doesn't do anything for you?" says one third-grade girl.

"Gold star," Baida says. "I need you to help me help you."

His posole — hand-chopped chicken breast, lime, cilantro, red bell peppers, no added sodium, hominy "so white and clean" — is a success. Out of 40 kids, only four give it the thumbs-down. Their responses will be input into a database. This is cooking by committee.

Newman was built to process 8,000 meals a day. Today, it pumps out a staggering 250,000. Consequently, space is cramped and the name of the game is speed. Automation. Heat and serve.

"This facility was supposed to be one of many throughout the city," Binkle says with a rueful smile. "They never built the other ones. They didn't have the money."

Cook, of Food for Lunch, has a somewhat different view: "Instead of whole foods, they still have this antiquated idea that they should be serving a hot meal for 77 cents for breakfast and lunch. Why would they even think that's possible? At 77 cents a meal?"

No Time

Back at lunch at Los Angeles High, Stephanie Hernandez has learned a few lessons. Keep your meal ticket hidden so bullies don't jack it. Make friends with those who will save you a place in line. Create a distraction so the monitors don't see you do it. Let other kids at the back of the line be the ones running out of time.

All's fair in war and lunch.

Each LAUSD school works out its own daily meal schedule. The only requirement is that the last child in line must have 20 minutes to eat. That's a pipe dream.

The district, which serves a meal on average every 10 seconds, is perfectly aware that students don't get enough time to eat. Everyone, really, is aware of it — district administrators, principals, teachers, cafeteria workers, parents, the kids themselves. Yet the situation persists.

"Everybody's pointing the finger at someone else," says CFPA nutrition policy advocate Nicola Edwards.

"Kids get less time to eat because teachers want more time to teach," Binkle says. Teachers, Matt Sharp suspects, don't want to stay at school a minute longer than they already do.

Why doesn't LAUSD simply lengthen the school day to provide more time for students to eat?

"I've been asking that myself," Barrett says.

The district says the teachers union is responsible. "The length of the school day would need to be negotiated with the staff per their contract," explains Robert Alaniz, LAUSD director of communications. "Changing the length of the day changes their working conditions and is a negotiated item."

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.

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.

"We were watching the kindergartners open their lunches," Starr says. "Here's this little boy, we're talking freshly 5. And he's struggling with the plastic, picking it out of his mouth, trying to get to the pizza. Now think about the plastic. They heat it up. It's gonna seep into the food. It's so scary."

Starr recalls a PTA president who found many gorgeous fresh bananas in trash cans, thrown there by young kids who didn't know how to peel them. Eating bananas might be easier with mom or dad's help, but the district doesn't allow parents to sit with their own children during school meals.

Starr and her husband moved here from Seattle. She used to laugh at the "granola moms" up there, with their organic beef and cruelty-free eggs. But then one day she poked her head into the cafeteria at her son's school in L.A. They were serving a breaded chicken patty on a bun. No condiments. Milk. And potato wedges. "I said where's the freaking vegetable. And they said that is the vegetable."

She stopped letting him buy school food.

Stay-at-home mom Carmen Joseph once visited a New Orleans school that blew her mind. Kindergartners sat at round tables, eating salads, with pitchers of water and cups in the middle, and a parent to guide them. "They were the quietest bunch of kids I've ever seen."

Ereida Garcia's kids go to Wilson, but they've attended other schools. In San Diego, they had a burrito stand, a burger stand, smoothies and a large salad bar with fruits and yogurt. In Portland, Ore., the cafeteria ladies whipped up fresh pancakes for breakfast. Garcia herself is a Class of '91 graduate of Pasadena High School, which is not part of LAUSD. She took her kids on a tour of its cafeteria, which they promptly fell in love with. "Why can't we have that here?" Garcia asks.

Garcia fought hard during her daughter's first two years at Wilson, and tried in vain with 80 other parents to get a salad bar. When that didn't happen, they sold mangoes, oranges and cucumbers for $1 a bag, reinvesting the proceeds into school field trips or equipment. When kids couldn't get through the cafeteria line, the parents sold tortas with tomatoes, potatoes and meat for lunch at the school Parent Center. Administrators told them to stop, saying the food was a health hazard.

Garcia, like many other frustrated parents, no longer bucks the system. "I gave up," she says.

What's more, the charter school movement siphoned some 100,000 students away from LAUSD in the past decade, stealing some of the best soldiers in the good-food movement. The students who departed were from some of the most organized households, with the most involved parents. They were precisely the people most likely to be able to fight for better school food.

Cook and Ventura attended meeting after meeting over 18 months. "We have a highly evolved food services director in David Binkle," Cook says. "He's working on the Berkeley Eco Literacy program. He's up there writing food nutrition policy for them. And then he comes down here and gives our kids frozen, processed dog food in a different container and calls it lunch?

"It's not OK."

LAUSD says it is all about transparency. That is true in some respects, false in others. Nutritional content for each menu item, for instance, can be found on the district's website. But sugar isn't listed. Neither is sodium. No information on either is readily available to the public.

Also, the district canceled the Cafeteria Improvement Committee meetings in recent months, taking away the public's one regular, guaranteed opportunity to be heard. The district's explanation? It plans to institute an ad hoc advisory group less encumbered by formal procedure. These will be better for stimulating dialogue, the district says.

"You get half of an answer that stops you for a while," says Carmen Joseph. "It's like you're drinking the Kool-Aid. Dennis Barrett did that to me once. I was, like, 'Oh, some of the kids aren't even getting their lunch? Well, that's terrible.' That's Dennis' technique. Feel sorry for us. And it's a good technique. It does work."

Small Changes

In the Riverside Unified School District, east of Los Angeles, Nutrition Services Director Rodney Taylor takes students to the school garden to pick lettuce. "Then they go into the cafeteria and say, 'You see that lettuce? I grew that,' " Cook recalls Taylor telling her. "He said, it doesn't matter what time of the year it is, they'll say that's my lettuce. Even if their lettuce is long gone. You create ownership, you create desire."

Taylor's district has 250 schools. All have salad bars.

How did you get a salad bar in every school, Cook asked?

"One school at a time," Taylor told her.

At LAUSD dependent charter Canyon Elementary School, Carmen Joseph works with second graders in the school garden. She says she has seen kids eat stuff that would shock their parents. They made black bean corn salad with kale, and pumpkin cornmeal muffins with pumpkins from the pumpkin patch.

But LAUSD does not allow them to serve the vegetables or fruits grown in the garden in the cafeteria because it would compete with participation in the lunch program.

At Los Angeles High, Jose Anaya isn't scoring illegal muffins from his Spanish teacher anymore. Teacher Salvador is no longer dealing. A student chucked a pear at her from the third floor while she was standing in the courtyard during lunch. The fruit hit her in the head and sent her to the hospital with concussion. No one knows who the culprit was, or if it was a piece of fruit the teacher herself sold.

After long deliberation and pressure from activists, Superintendent Deasy recommended that Los Angeles Unified's Board of Education stop serving the high-sugar chocolate and strawberry milk, effective fall 2011. Deasy made the announcement with a grinning Jamie Oliver on late-night TV show Jimmy Kimmel Live. The board voted 5-2 Tuesday to stop serving chocolate or strawberry flavored milk with added sugar.

There's also a new menu. It's the first one Binkle, Barrett and chef Mark Baida have had under their complete control, they say, without having to honor past contracts, which are sunsetting this year. The new menu, to debut in the fall, is undergoing taste-testing at the moment. Items are still in flux. Thus far, "potato smiles" and Tater Tots are returning. Chicken nuggets are not.

Instead of processed reconstituted meat, there will be whole chicken breast served with dark green veggies and brown rice. Kids can expect to eat chef Baida's Vietnamese bánh mì. Quinoa and Israeli couscous and lentils are on the agenda, too.

And yes, even hummus.

Napoleon Dynamite: “Dude …got any ‘tots?”

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