Mark Baida was pleased with his latest taste test: lots of empty little black trays, sometimes stacked three deep in front of his guinea pigs, a group of Garfield High School students.
But the pressure is on the new executive chef of the Los Angeles Unified School District: Demands are growing from parent groups, the school board and students for food that is delicious, healthful, served quickly -- and really, really inexpensive. In the last few years, the school board has banned soda and set standards for salt and fat, among other things. Now the aim is to make it more appealing too.
Garfield, where about 3,000 students eat cafeteria food each day, is one of several places Baida has gone to see how students will react to his new menu.
"We're changing menus. A Chef's Signature Series . . . very different packaging, look, taste, smell," limited-time offerings, said Baida, who wore a white L.A. Unified chef's jacket with pens and an instant-read thermometer in the pocket on his left sleeve.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, July 10, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
School food: An article in the June 22 California section about Los Angeles school food services gave the name of a group that seeks to improve access to nutritious and healthy food for low-income Californians, California Food Policy Advocates, as California Food Policy Activists.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, July 13, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
School food: An article in the June 22 California section about Los Angeles school food services gave the name of a group that seeks to improve access to nutritious and healthful food for low-income Californians, California Food Policy Advocates, as California Food Policy Activists.
He oversees 500,000 meals a day (about 76% of them provided free or at reduced prices) at more than 700 locations. In some schools, more than 3,000 students have to eat in 30 minutes -- something no restaurant does, Baida noted.
"I'm here to move a mountain and I need a lot of shovels," he said.
Elementary school students pay $1 for lunch; secondary students pay $1.50. A lunch, including labor and overhead, costs about $2.66, with much of that coming back to the district in federal reimbursements; L.A. Unified spends about 75 cents on food per meal, some of that for such federal surplus commodities as cheese and beef, said David Binkle, the district's deputy director of food services. (Food services is required to be self-supporting.)
On a recent Wednesday afternoon the Garfield student volunteers tasted entrees the district expects to start serving this fall: enchiladas and lasagna, as well as bags of chips -- popped, not fried. For each item, the students were asked to circle icons for thumbs up or thumbs down.
There were very few of the latter.
"It's delicious. Real lasagna," said Daniel Delarosa, an 18-year-old senior at Garfield. He said he would buy it in the cafeteria, where he finds the food now to be "decent, not more than that."
"It's better than what we have now," said Daniel Bolanos, 17. His chief complaints? The pizza is too greasy. The burritos "don't have enough taste."
Several officials and activists were also at Garfield, showing off marketing material and nutritional charts and trying to assess perception as much as reality.
What kids think could make the most stalwart cafeteria lady wince.
Consider these lyrics from the teen cult band the Aquabats: "So I got a book of tickets and a schedule and it read / Monday: hot dogs / Tuesday: tacos / Wednesday: hamburgers and chocolate milk / Thursday sloppy joes and burritos in a bag / Friday was pizza day, the best day of the week."
Worse, students sometimes call school lunch "county food," meaning food served by juvenile authorities, said Matt Sharp, director of California Food Policy Activists.
But even critics say there's a noticeable change, with a new team running the food service and a school board ready for change. "We've made so much progress since we started this conversation," said board member Marlene Canter, who has been a leader in efforts to improve what's served in schools.
"We are trying to change the image" as well as the food, starting with high schools, where only 38% of students eat school lunch, Binkle said.
One big complaint is that the lunch lines are so long that students don't have time even to get food, let alone eat it. To address that, 64 high school cafeterias are scheduled for remodeling this summer to make the lines more efficient, and 70 more will be renovated in the fall.
But making school food cool will take more than shorter lines.
Baida hopes his Chef's Signature Series will help. It includes such items as an open-face Chicken Italiano Sandwich with tomatoes. Also ahead are barbecued chicken sliders and roasted-vegetable-and-bean wraps using whole wheat tortillas.
He has other ideas, "3 a.m. chef ideas," he calls them: classroom room service, using students' family recipes, dim sum, even a different menu for the faculty.
"I'm not a nutritionist and I don't want to be. I'm a chef," he said. "We have to go back to making people love food."
Baida, 39, who spent more than eight years as the executive chef at USC before coming to L.A. Unified last August, has worked with some of L.A.'s top chefs. He grew up in Philadelphia and Miami, moving to Southern California as a teenager. He went to North Hollywood High and brought lunches made by mom to school. His own children are divided: One likes school food, one won't eat it.