School cafeterias have not generally been known for their memorable meals — at least not in a good way. Many evoke memories of surly lunch ladies dishing up Sloppy Joe sandwiches made out of "mystery meat" to unwitting pupils.
In an effort to burst that stereotype, La Cañada Unified School District officials have hired a new vendor that is focusing on providing fresher, more healthful meals and giving students more leeway to build their own creations. So far, officials said, the burrito bar seems to be a hit.
A five-year, $441,551 contract with Chartwells School Dining Services, owned by Britain-based Compass Group, was unanimously approved by the school board in June. The contract estimates Chartwells will provide 231,000 meals annually, including a la carte purchases.
Chartwells plans to help the small district steer away from processed, packaged meals and toward more locally sourced and freshly prepared options, Mark Evans, the district's chief officer of business and operations, said on a recent visit to La Cañada High School's cafeteria.
"We're preparing more of the food here and bringing in less private labels," Evans said, referring to past agreements with companies such as Dominos, which delivered versions of its regular offerings that met school dietary guidelines. "I'm hoping with the wide range of choices, there will be options to appeal to a variety of tastes."
New features in the high school cafeteria, where meals for the district's four schools are made, include a customized burrito bar with freshly prepared ingredients and a deli that lets students select toppings.
So far, with the new school year just getting started, the menu makeover seems to be a success as more La Cañada High students enjoy more healthful entrees and build-your-own burritos and deli sandwiches.
Food service employee Lena Bonyad, who's worked at La Cañada High for nearly 19 years, reports a largely positive reaction among students and their choices.
"The food is different," she said. "And I can see the difference. The students are talking, saying, 'Good food.'"
Monica Garcia, director of food and dining services for Chartwells, said an effort is being made to incorporate whole grains, fruits and vegetables into the rotating menu. This means more prep work for the employees, who seem happily up to the task.
Garcia, who used to teach culinary courses at a Los Angeles community college, is available to answer questions from staff and guide them in the best use of the day's food items. She hopes the new approach will continue to garner positive reviews.
"Now you can actually see real food and fresh ingredients being used," Garcia said, pointing out that the sauce for the day's honey-glazed chicken with roasted butternut squash was made by hand.
"No mystery meat here — it's either beef, chicken or turkey."
Cardine writes for Times Community News.