Move over, Tater Tots. Powdered doughnuts? Take a hike.
Fiddlesticks to fish sticks.
Mrs. Gooch is coming to town--or at least, to a school cafeteria near you.
Sandy Gooch, the Sherman Oaks health-food maven whose name graces high-end grocery stores throughout Los Angeles, is on a new mission: to develop tastier, more nutritious food for local high school students. And she’s counting on a little help from her friends--Campanile restaurant co-owner Nancy Silverton and chef to the stars Wolfgang Puck, to name just two.
Together, Gooch and company plan to work on an experimental program at Venice High School this fall to transform food-service workers into frugal gourmets, wean teen-agers off junk food, even help save the planet.
“We want to motivate students to eat healthy foods, learn how to cook them and even grow them in the garden space they have at Venice High,” says Gooch.
But make no mistake: Gooch does not envision replacing the current menu with nouvelle cuisine offerings that most people can’t identify, much less afford, at Spago, Patina or the Border Grill. There are tight public-school budgets to contend with as well as teen-agers for whom organic remains an unlearned vocabulary word.
“Personally, I think the idea of cherry sauce on duck sounds delicious, but I don’t think it’ll fly in a cafeteria,” Gooch says.
“But how about a whole-grain pizza made with a variety of vegetables on top and some government commodity cheese? How about a casserole that would be made with beans and tofu or beans and rice?
“And what if the cost were 10 cents per meal less than what is now being given in the cafeteria?”
The aim of the program is to educate youngsters about both the importance of a balanced diet and the impact of food on the global environment--such as the harm done by fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals, according to Gooch.
Students will sample dishes, hear cooking tips from chefs who work at tony restaurants and help develop a “plant-based menu” that would be cheaper than the selections littering cafeteria trays now. The Los Angeles Unified School District, bound by federal guidelines for nutritional content in campus meals, has not given its full blessing to the program, which Gooch hopes to expand throughout the city. Gooch, a former schoolteacher who once assisted a citywide task force examining the link between nutrition and behavior, got in touch with Venice High officials and worked out an arrangement directly with the school administration.
But the district has agreed to work with participants and will send a staff nutritionist to the program’s kickoff party Wednesday evening at Gooch’s hilltop home, to be attended by students, city politicos and celebrity cooks bearing platters of lentil-walnut pate, eggplant dip, green-corn tamales and white-bean puree with crostini (toast, to the uninitiated).
“We have to be very pragmatic,” said LAUSD Food Services Director Warren Lund, whose operations serve 350,000 lunches a day.
“If the kids don’t eat it, then it won’t do any good. It’s finding that happy medium of what’s good for them and what they’ll actually eat that’s difficult.”
The gastronomic gospel of Gooch’s program closely follows the so-called Mediterranean food pyramid, which puts a premium on fruits, vegetables (especially legumes), grains, nuts, dairy products and olive oil and de-emphasizes meat.
While it’s doubtful that the cash-strapped district could afford to buy organically grown produce in stores like Mrs. Gooch’s, the program will encourage campus cooks to use government commodities more creatively.
“If you think about the Mediterranean diet, those people are poor,” said Teri Neville, assistant to Silverton at Campanile. “Beans are a huge government commodity, and there’s a lot we do with legumes and grains. We do lots of salads. We put beans in pasta. Schools can grow their own herbs.”
A similar program already exists in Santa Cruz, where a local high school has broadened its lunch menu to include alternative cuisine.
In Santa Cruz, veggie burgers outsell regular hamburgers, said Susan Campbell of EarthSave, the Santa Cruz-based environmental organization that helped implement the program. The cafeteria boasts a salad bar. Hot dogs are made of soy products and wheat gluten.
“We’re not trying to get kids to be vegetarians,” Campbell said.
“The idea of giving them an Earth-friendly meal is to give them the opportunity to make a choice.”