Lunchtime at the Venice High School cafeteria is a lesson in speed: in 15 minutes flat, nearly 600 students have raced through the food lines, cleared the cashier hurdle and thrown down their lunch, most of them not even taking the time to sit while they eat.
Although the haste to refuel may not be news to anyone familiar with modern high school students, what is piled on their Styrofoam trays these days is a surprise even to the teenagers.
“There are more choices,” said sophomore Anney Kim, as she dug her plastic spoon into a baked potato filled with broccoli and cheese sauce. “I can eat this kind of thing. The other stuff didn’t settle well in my stomach.”
Sure there are cheeseburgers and spaghetti and even chili cheese dogs for those who want them--and many do. Yet every day, Anney can select fresh fruit, not just canned, and salads made with torn leaves of several lettuce varieties, not just shredded iceberg.
When there are chicken patty sandwiches--which is often--they are baked, not fried. A vegetarian entree appears daily, from a pre-approved list of 10 choices ranging from pasta primavera to vegetable calzone. Several times a week, the cafeteria staff sets up a baked potato bar where students can stuff the tubers with everything from vegetables to vegetarian chili.
A typical lunch finds kids dashing from food island to food island, instead of waiting in a line, grabbing watermelon slices from the fresh food cart and piling bowls high with salad. To be sure, some hedge their bets and also nab a burger.
“I would serve that to my family,” said PTA President Marie Green, who was among the taste-testers for the new entrees. “And they still serve the regular stuff, so there is a choice.”
The culinary evolution at Venice is certainly not an example of demand driving supply--sure the students complained about the cafeteria food, but what’s new about that? Instead, the rather radical adjustments were engineered by one of the missionaries of healthy eating: Sandi Gooch, a founder of the chain of natural food grocery stores formerly named for her: Mrs. Gooch’s.
Gooch teamed up with several Los Angeles restaurateurs to begin a nonprofit group called the Healthy Meals Team, dedicated to improving local school lunch programs. They chose Venice as the pilot site because Venice High was willing to give it a try.
But since the Venice students are actually consuming the new items--or at least most of them--Venice’s metamorphosis may have touched off a food revolution in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Less than a year after the program was initiated at the Westside school, recipes developed for the school have become blueprints for the central food service factory and the outside food vendors, which do most of the cooking for the 383,300 students fed daily in the nation’s second-largest school system.
Those alternatives are creeping onto the menus at other schools. For several months, most campuses have had access to the vegetable calzone and the vegetarian chili. Soon, red beans and rice will be added.
The fruit and salad bar also may be tried at other schools because of its popularity at Venice. “It’s not all pre-portioned, they have control over it and it looks more like what they see in restaurants,” said Wendy Rosenfeld, a registered dietitian with the district. That, she said, counteracts some of the stigma attached to school cafeterias.
Because of growing interest in the healthier entrees, Venice High cafeteria manager Mark Bailey said in the past month he has found himself competing for menu offerings that used to be available only to him. It is a inconvenience that, on deeper reflection, he finds heartening.
Bailey said he takes pride in the dramatic increase in the number of Venice students who eat lunch in the cafeteria, up about 40% over last year.
“I feel the students should have these choices,” he said.
Still, the greatest number of students who eat cafeteria lunches at Venice High and other district campuses do so because they are eligible for free or subsidized lunches--meaning their families are poor. A majority of those who can choose still prefer to bring lunch from home, not eat or get food from off-campus businesses.
PTA president Green acknowledges that her daughter is among those non-cafeteria eaters and, indeed, Catherine Green can be found most lunchtimes sitting on the school’s front lawn, eating a homemade sandwich or a piece of fruit. She doesn’t like to consume heavy food before basketball practice, she said, and, well, what she can bring from home is still better.
When it comes to something as prescribed by both tradition and regulation as school lunches, any alteration involves intense negotiations, which in the case of Venice meant numerous meetings among the various parties: Gooch’s team, members of the school community and representatives of the school district.
School officials brought a touch of reality to the discussions on teenagers’ eating habits. Pumpkin tortellini may never sell. But it was the district dietitian, Rosenfeld, who had to play the heavy, a role that she--as a vegetarian and a trained gourmet chef--found difficult.
“I had to play the devil’s advocate,” she said. “The government is not very lenient when it comes to plant-based proteins . . . if it’s soy, for instance, it has to have so much animal product with it, which kind of defeats the purpose.”
Federal standards for school lunches require most protein to come from meat, Rosenfeld said, and contamination concerns associated with tofu make that an unacceptable substitute. In addition, school districts receive government commodities--cheese, canned fruit, peanut better, even meat--so economizing means designing recipes that use those ingredients.
Groundwork for innovation had been laid in Los Angeles district years before, when it was among the first large school systems to respond to updated nutritional guidelines. The district switched to ground turkey instead of ground beef in such school cafeteria staples as sloppy Joe’s, changed to fresh or frozen vegetables instead of canned and eliminated most deep-fat frying.
Rosenfeld said she is excited by two recent improvements: promises for deliveries of low-fat cheese and low-fat peanut butter through the commodities channels.
New federal regulations that take effect next year emphasize reducing in fat content and increasing vegetable portions, offering both impetus and more wiggle room for schools that are interested in following Venice High’s lead.
For Venice High, further change is envisioned.
Nutrition instruction in science class focuses on overcoming teens’ proclivity for junk food, with hopes of increasing the market for the new cuisine. A planned overhaul of the cafeteria would replace picnic tables with booths and standing counters to cater to students’ desire to nosh on the run. Another round of taste testing is contemplated for entrees that could expand, or in some cases supplant, the current 10 choices. Students vote with their hands--what they don’t like, they won’t pick up--and so far no amount of nutrition instruction can change their no vote on one item: the Garden Burger, a mixture of oatmeal and vegetables that resembles a hamburger only in its shape.