Sunday, November 13, 2011


by Susan Abram Staff Writer - Daily News/Daily Breeze |

Parents wait in line for school food samples during a free food tasting event at Cardenas Elementary School in Van Nuys. (Andy Holzman Staff Photographer)

< Araselia Guerrero offers up a bite of chicken to her daughter Kasandra during a free food tasting event at Cardenas Elementary School in Van Nuys, CA November 10, 2011. During the event, parents tasted healthy school menu items and learned about healthier food choices fo their families. (Andy Holzman/Daily News Staff Photographer) (

11-13-2011 - Araselia Guerrero scooped a forkful of ancho chili chicken with yakisoba into her mouth and chewed the food pensively.

All around her, about 50 moms just like her filled the cafeteria of Cardenas Elementary School in the San Fernando Valley last week to taste tamales, chicken wings, manicotti and posole.

"It's really good!" the mother of four declared after a bite, delighted with the white-meat chicken, the sugar snap peas and red peppers.

"I'm going to tell my kids to try it."

For Chef Mark Baida, who created the dish, Guerrero's words were music to his ears.

In August, the Los Angeles Unified School District rolled out a new lunch menu as part of an effort to reduce calories, fat, sodium and sugar from students' diets.

The new meals feature more fruits and vegetables, as well as updated versions of traditional fare, such as turkey burgers on ciabatta rolls and barbecue baked chicken.

Considered revolutionary, the menu has placed the LAUSD at the forefront of meeting federal guidelines years before other schools. The district even caught the eye of first lady Michelle Obama, who is working to encourage families to eat more healthfully.

But the nation's second largest school district is also learning a lesson of its own: You can take the pizza slices and chicken nuggets out of the cafeteria, but you can't take the taste for grease out of the mouths of babes.

"Not everyone is going to be happy," said Baida, the district's chef for the past five years. "It's going to take at least 10 years for kids to get used to it. It took 20 years for people to see that cigarettes were deadly."

Participation in the food program has dipped, a concern because the district is spending at least $20 million this year on fruits and vegetables, compared with $2 million in 2006.

Of the nearly 700,000 students enrolled in LAUSD, nearly 80 percent receive free or reduced price lunches. But parents have reported children coming home hungry because they won't try the new food. For many children, school breakfasts and lunches are the only meals they will have all day.

Baida acknowledged that participation in the food program has dropped, but he said the district has worked on the menu for years, even conducting taste tests with parents and children.

A big challenge was to create a menu reflective of Los Angeles' diversity and to make it healthy. Ninety-two languages are spoken within the LAUSD. That's a lot of palates to try to please, Baida said.

One of the menu items is posole, a traditional Mexican stew often made with pork. Baida gave it a makeover and included chicken instead.

"We live in a very diverse city but a person from one community may never even visit another community," Baida said. "If I give hummus and pita chips in Encino, they'll eat it but if I serve that in South Los Angeles, they may never have seen that."

Still, he believes it's important for children to try all kinds of foods.

"To me, food needs to be diverse," Baida said. "I believe in three things: cuisine, culture and people."

But some agencies that work with the LAUSD said the district could have marketed the food a little better, so that parents could raise their children's interest and awareness about it.

"If you compare LAUSD with other districts nationwide they are ahead of the curve," said Ariana Oliva, with California Food Policy Advocates.

"For the most part they have eliminated the junk food," Oliva said. "But one of the critical components is there needs to be more marketing of the menu items. My fear is because they didn't do the marketing, the kids are not going to eat it, and if they don't eat it, (the district) might go back to the old menu."

Oliva and others credit the district with many moves over the years to help curb the obesity problem among children. Nearly 42 percent of all school-age children in Los Angeles County are considered overweight or obese, compared with 38 percent statewide, according to data released Wednesday by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.

The district was the first in the nation to ban soda from cafeterias, which later became mandated statewide. And in 2004, LAUSD officials worked to replace greasy french fries with oven-baked sweet potato wedges and cookies with apples and bananas.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is hoping to implement these kinds of menu changes nationwide over the next few years. It would mark the first time in 15 years that standards have been raised for the program, which feeds 32 million children every day.

Despite those positive changes, junk food still is sold in student stores. Teenagers who carry free-lunch tickets feel stigmatized. And some kids have no time to eat, because the lines to get the food are long, and lunch break is short. All of those issues make the revamped menu counterproductive, said Elizabeth Medrano, an organizer for the Occidental College-based Center for Food and Justice.

"The menu is pretty revolutionary and reflects a lot of the recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine," Medrano said. "But we still need enforcement."

And interest.

The district now is trying to convince parents with younger children growing up within the LAUSD that the food is worth trying. Last week, the district launched a series of food tastings.

On Thursday, neighborhood moms walked for blocks and pushed strollers into Cardenas Elementary, where they tried the vegetarian tamales and the manicotti with tomato-basil marinara. They also tasted quinoa and veggie salad.

"I don't know why my daughter doesn't like it," said Marleny Rodriguez, whose two children go to the school. "I'm going to tell her it's good."

Glenda Gonzalez said her 6- and 7-year-olds have been coming home hungry, saying they didn't eat lunch because they don't know what to eat.

She agreed that change has to start at home, with parents.

"We have to change for the kids," she said. "We can't tell them to eat something if we aren't willing to change."

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