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In L.A. Unified's Pilot Nutrition Program, Chefs and Students Cook Up Curriculum

April 06, 2002|STEPHANIE STASSEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A high school senior who had never eaten an authentic Cobb salad was the first to notice the missing ingredient: hard-boiled eggs.

Retired chef Richard L. Morgan was so engrossed in his culinary lesson at North Hollywood High School that he forgot to include the eggs until Jayson Quinones reminded him.

Morgan quickly chopped them up and added them to a three-gallon stainless steel bowl containing a massive portion of the salad, which originated at the famed Brown Derby restaurant where Morgan worked for five years of his 60-year career.

"Very few places make it right," said Morgan, 83, who recently sent back a Cobb salad at a local restaurant because it contained beets. "That's not a Cobb salad. That's false advertising."

Morgan was at North Hollywood High as part of the Los Angeles Unified School District's Chefs in the Schools program, which aims to get students to make and eat more healthy food.

About 500 youths at 25 schools are involved in the pilot chefs program, in which they learn from professionals how to make nutritious foods, including fruit smoothies, potato leek soup and Belgian vegetable stew.

Quinones, 18, said he liked chopping up lettuce, tomatoes and avocado and enjoyed tasting his first Cobb salad.

"I think kids will really get into it," he said. "When it comes out well, they will have more incentive to cook something else."

Some students in the school's Nutrition Advisory Council will demonstrate the salad-making lesson to their peers and, program organizers hope, to their parents. Others will paint murals about healthy food or hand out samples of nutritious food during mid-morning snack time.

At Anatola Avenue Elementary School in Van Nuys, students dress up as the "Singing Salad Sisters" for assemblies and croon about eating more fruits and vegetables.

The district launched Nutrition Network, which oversees the chef program, two years ago at 219 schools. It is part of a $4.8-million program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to instill good eating habits among children.

Some schools have developed on-campus gardens or added salad bars to the cafeteria fare. Others receive a four-page Harvest of the Month newsletter, which features a particular fruit or vegetable that students can study as well as eat.

The hands-on Chefs in the Schools program fulfills an important need, educators say.

"A lot of the time we're involved with reading and math, so health and nutrition get pushed to the back," said Judy Franks, principal of Van Nuys' Valerio Elementary School, where a chef recently visited. "This is important, especially with what we're hearing about obesity in children."

According to a 1999 surgeon general's report, 13% of U.S. children ages 6 to 11, and 14% of those 12 to 19, were overweight, putting them at higher risk to develop heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Overweight children have a 70% chance of being obese as adults, the study showed.

In Los Angeles, the problem of childhood obesity appears to be worse than the national average. More than 40% of children were found to be obese when UCLA surveyed roughly 900 students at 14 L.A. Unified elementary schools in 1998.

Dr. Francine Kaufman, division head of endocrinology at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, called Chefs in the Schools a "baby step" in the effort to reverse the trend of childhood obesity.

"I applaud LAUSD and I don't want to diminish what they are doing, but this is a very small piece to a huge solution," said Kaufman, who is also president-elect of the American Diabetes Assn. "Schools need to have a minimum [nutritional] requirement for every item sold on campus, meaningful physical education for all students and nutritional education, if we're going to turn back the tide."

Johanna Anderson, nutrition program director for the Los Angeles County Public Health Office, said the district has a "model program."

"It's wonderful to have a connection with chefs in the community who are doing very tasty recipes with nutritious food," said Anderson, a registered dietitian.

In August, UCLA's School of Public Health will release a study evaluating the effectiveness of the Chefs in the Schools program.

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