How to Feed 700,000
It feeds 700,000 people in 915 sites spread over 700 square miles. Its breakfasts meet one-fourth of daily nutritional requirements and its lunches one-third. Every meat dish has been tested for microbiological safety. Is it McDonald’s?
No way. It’s the Los Angeles Unified School District.
No fast-food chain could match the job done by the district. School menus change on a three-week basis. All meals meet the stringent nutritional requirements of the federal government. District restrictions on additives, fat and salt are so demanding that they spawned a sales pitch from food suppliers peddling their goods to other districts: “It passed L.A.”
This is no small feat, yet it consistently eludes praise as the media, school board officials and Sacramento dwell instead on the district’s conspicuous problems. The district’s food services branch is all too aware of these, not least the fact that more than a third of its schools and learning centers don’t have cafeterias.
“You hear a lot of negatives, but you don’t hear the positive,” says Dianne Doi, deputy director of the branch.
The positive is taken for granted, though the Federal school lunch and breakfast programs serve 25 million people, or 60% of school-age children nationwide. In L.A., meals are delivered so reliably that it looks effortless. It is anything but.
It starts with the grocery shopping, done in part by Uncle Sam. Meat, poultry, produce and grain bought by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support farm prices are regularly diverted to schools. These foods include beef, milk, chicken, apples and flour. However, unexpected donations keep school menu writers on their toes.
“One year there was almond butter, and we made cookies,” recalls Orlando Griego, district food services branch director.
Its combination of donated food and a $79-million annual food budget makes the district an unusual customer on the open market. It may request a food processor to make pizzas or it may pay for pizzas to be made with government-supplied flour. Either way, what it wants, it tends to get. The district has so much clout in the produce market that when it accepted Del Monte pineapples, it had the firm retool its Hawaiian cutting plant to produce spears to fit school plates.
Nothing is bought without having been put under the microscope of the district’s nine dietitians, led by senior nutrition specialist Laura Chinnock. A soft-spoken, sensibly clad woman, at first sight she might appear destined for a church supper rather than for a job at a vast meal packing plant in East L.A. Here, at the 20-year-old Newman Nutrition Center, meals are packed for the schools that lack cafeterias.
It’s not until she dons a lab jacket and begins moving briskly from her office to test kitchen and on to the purchasing units overlooking the food plant that one glimpses her steel.
Pausing in the kitchen, she sees a colleague grading a new sample: blueberry strudel. On the table nearby is a form on which the product will be graded. The criteria: color, texture, flavor and appearance. One mark against is all it takes to flunk it.
It takes a heartbeat for Chinnock to reject it: Her colleague is having trouble opening it. “It’s childproof,” she says.
When her team decides that it wants something, it seeks out suppliers. “We write detailed specifications for anything costing more than $51,000--which, when you’re feeding 700,000 kids, is almost everything,” Chinnock says. In fielding samples, writing specs and eliciting bids, Chinnock will, without a blush, tell Tyson Foods how to make a chicken nugget. “If a supplier then brings us a chicken nugget and says that it has so much chicken and so much breading, we’ll take it apart and check,” she says.
She is at her toughest when it comes to what she doesn’t want. The district led the country in limiting food coloring, sulfites, MSG, sugar, salt and fat in school food. “Our burrito is lower in fat and lower in sodium than you can buy in stores,” says Chinnock. “Ours are limited at 18% of calories from fat, whereas they can be up to 50% in commercial equivalents.”
A healthful burrito? Question the wisdom of stuffing kids with modified versions of junk food, and Chinnock will acknowledge that it is not sending an ideal message. However, she will also fix you with a pragmatist’s gaze and say, “You’ve got to serve food that kids will eat.”
The fact is, what kids don’t like, they ditch. “When developing a product,” she says, “we will take it out to a school and stand by the waste cans and see what they’re throwing away.” Her team requires a 94% consumption rate or higher to proceed with a dish.
It also polls the kids. After canvassing 12,712 children at 191 elementary schools, the team produced its annual food preference survey last spring. Chinnock’s group was struck that the popularity of foods did not reflect the ethnic backgrounds of the children. Rather, fast-food chains seemed to be imprinting children’s tastes. The poll showed the top five foods to be chicken nuggets, pizzas, burritos, calzoni and hamburgers.
And so to what they don’t like: vegetables. Resistance to greens among children is so profound that in 1996, the General Accounting Office--the investigating arm of Congress--reported that 42% of cooked vegetables in school meals nationwide were being tossed into bins.
Stage one of enticing the little darlings to eat something identifiably healthful falls to the district produce buyer. He is Danny Jensen, and at 4 a.m daily, he can be found at the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market.
Last year, the district went through 9 million apples, 3 million bananas and 6 million oranges. On any given day, it is his job to find top-grade lettuce that comes in 7,000-pound batches and nectarines that are sweet enough that kids will eat them--but that also have grown to a uniform size and are available in lots of 60,000.
“We have gotten to the point that we can reserve entire crops,” he says. “It works for us, because we can limit post-harvest applications of herbicides, and suppliers like the guarantee of a buyer.
“It has been,” he says, almost skipping down the market’s concrete loading docks, “a wonderful year for fruit. . . . “ His words trail off as a heady scent of strawberries wafts up. He spins, following his nose. “Oooh! Driscoll strawberries! They’ll eat them like candy!” He is equally elated ripping open a box of iceberg lettuce. “See how fresh that is!”
However, to Dolores Olivares, the freshness of the lettuce hardly matters. As cafeteria manager of the Allesandro Elementary School in the Elysian Park area, she gets to watch it wilt. On salad days, paper cups filled with shredded iceberg sit unclaimed, and an impressive array of pre-packed dressings does little to heighten their appeal. “Salad doesn’t move,” she says. If you suggest to her that it may be that iceberg is flavorless, she’ll counter, “No. Kids don’t like salad.”
Back at her East L.A. lab, Chinnock’s team took a leaf from Mexican cooking to see whether they could slip salad to kids in another guise: as a topping on chalupas. Olivares approves: “If we are serving the salad on a chalupa, it moves.”
It takes more than 6,000 people to get out LA’s school meals each day. Most rarely meet. However, they function as a tight team, and, seem to like what they do. Olivares doesn’t care if you label her the politically correct “food service professional” or the antique “lunch lady”. After 14 years at Allesandro and 26 years with LAUSD, she’s been called both. Her desk is covered with snapshots of colleagues from the long career. Asked about one, she says, “Oh, him, he’s the frozen food guy. Everybody’s friends around here.”
Up all night, Jensen rarely makes it to schools. However, he would be happy to see the seedless Valencias that he bought only a day earlier being sliced by Olivares, and then being taken by the small hands of 5-year-olds. Earlier that day, he had just bought more of them at the market and his mood soared as dawn broke. “I love my job,” he cried. “I feed the kids of LA!”
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