No more ‘mystery meat’: Locally sourced school food comes to La Cañada

Kitchen worker Andrea Jimenez, left, keeps the food stocked as a student grabs food items in the cafeteria lunch line at Bravo Medical Magnet High School in Los Angeles.

Kitchen worker Andrea Jimenez, left, keeps the food stocked as a student grabs food items in the cafeteria lunch line at Bravo Medical Magnet High School in Los Angeles.

(Christina House / For The Times)
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School cafeterias have not historically engendered positive associations, instead evoking memories of surly lunch ladies dishing up sloppy joe sandwiches made of “mystery meat” to unwitting students.

In an effort to bust that stereotype by providing fresher, healthier meals and giving students more leeway to build their own creations, La Cañada Unified officials have contracted with a new food vendor this year and hope the partnership will be a good pairing.

A five-year, $441,551 contract with Chartwells School Dining Services, owned by UK-based Compass Group, was unanimously approved by district board members in June. Renewable each year, the contract estimates the vendor will provide an annual 231,000 meals, including à la carte purchases.


Chartwells aims to help the district steer away from processed, packaged meals toward more locally sourced and freshly prepared options, said Mark Evans, the district’s chief officer of business and operations, on a visit Tuesday 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 like Dominos, which delivered guideline-friendly versions of its regular offerings. “I’m hoping with the wide range of choices, there will be options to appeal to a variety of tastes.”

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New features this year in the high school cafeteria, where meals for all four of the district’s school sites are made, include a customized burrito bar with freshly prepared ingredients and a deli bar that lets students select their preferred toppings.

So far, with just one week of the new school year under its belt, the menu makeover seems to be a relative success as more La Cañada High School students enjoy healthier entrees and build-your-own burritos and deli sandwiches.

Food service employee Lena Bonyad, who’s worked at the high school for nearly 19 years, reported a largely positive reaction among students and their choices.


“The food is different,” she admits. “And I can see the difference. The students are talking, saying ‘good food.’”

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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 net a positive response.

“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.”


Sara Cardine writes for Times Community News.


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