At Mark Twain Middle School in Los Angeles, a blooming garden serves as a classroom. Students learn math by measuring the growth of wheat, ancient history by building a Mesopotamian-style irrigation system and the science of evaporation, evolution and genetics by watching their garden grow.
At lunchtime, they may be found snacking on pasta tossed in a sauce featuring just-picked tomatoes and basil.
Aiming to expand such links between classroom and cafeteria, the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education voted this week to further strengthen what is regarded as one of the leading school nutrition programs in the nation. In a resolution passed without opposition, board members directed the district to create a plan to incorporate nutrition education into the curriculum, give students more say in school meal planning and allow them at least 20 minutes to actually eat. Some students say they end up with as little as five minutes for meals because of long cafeteria lines.
The resolution also directs Supt. John Deasy to report on the financial impact of unauthorized food sales on campus, which include chips, cookies and other junk food that compete with the district's meals. Despite districtwide policies promoting healthful food, many individual campuses sell such perennial favorites as baked Flamin' Hot Cheetos in school stores and vending machines to raise money.
Board member Steve Zimmer, who co-sponsored the resolution with President Monica Garcia, said the district needed to continue pushing forward on the issue, noting that healthful eating is linked to academic achievement and that some students rely on school meals for most of their daily nutrition.
"We have a sacred obligation to make sure we do everything in our power to raise the quality of our nutritional content," Zimmer said.
The resolution is the latest effort to put L.A. Unified in the forefront of a national movement to make school meals more nutritious and reduce childhood obesity and other health problems.
Over the past several years, L.A. Unified has banned sodas and flavored milk on campus, introduced classroom breakfasts to ensure no child starts the day hungry and transformed its menus. Many items high in fat, salt and sugar have been removed — including such popular fare as corn dogs and coffee cake — in favor of more whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
The changes have not always been popular. The turkey burgers are "nasty" and the Italian flatbread with marinara sauce "makes your breath disgusting," said Keonta Johnson, a Mark Twain sixth-grader.
But Keonta and three of his friends eating lunch this week said they enjoyed such healthful cafeteria fare as rice and beans, salads and fruits. "We know if we eat too much junk food we'll get fat and have a greater chance of heart attacks and diabetes," Keonta said.
Edwin Castro, a seventh-grader, said his friends particularly lamented the loss of the coffee cake and spicy chicken wings; and fewer of them now eat school meals because they don't like them. But, Castro said, he has cut back on chips, cookies and candy the last few years after learning about nutrition in school and seeing his parents and grandparents struggle with diabetes.
He and other students said lessons in eating habits, history and other subjects that employed hands-on work out in the school garden have been far more exciting than just reading textbooks.
The garden was revived three years ago by a couple of volunteer master gardeners, who have helped teachers connect it to the curriculum. Those efforts, Zimmer said, can be a model for other schools.
David Binkle, L.A. Unified's food services director, said the district would carry out the board's directive to expand student voices in meal planning through continued campus surveys and plans to build "culinary advisory teams" of food manufacturers, culinary schools and other local partners to work on menu issues at individual campuses.
The district is surveying thousands of students, who so far have given a thumbs-up to about half the menu items — including fajitas and chicken teriyaki rice bowls — and rejected others such as the Italian flatbread.
The resolution passed this week also directs the district to form a committee of nutrition experts, community members, food service workers, parents and others to annually evaluate and grade the efforts to carry out the board's school nutrition policy.
Officials with the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles said parts of the resolution, while well-intended, could be challenging to put into practice. Making sure every student has 20 minutes to eat, for instance, could require more cafeteria workers, school supervision and possibly a longer school day, said Dan Isaacs of the administrators' union.
"I don't think any human being on Earth would deny a youngster time for lunch, but you have to take a careful look at it," he said.