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L.A. Unified can't escape celebrity chef's drama

District officials take reporters on a tour of an East L.A. processing facility after British chef Jamie Oliver challenged the superintendent and school board to allow him to bring his health food message to students.

April 14, 2011|By Rick Rojas, Los Angeles Times
  • Students at Bravo Medical Magnet High School choose their lunches.
Students at Bravo Medical Magnet High School choose their lunches. (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

Los Angeles school district officials were wary of a celebrity chef's reality television show precisely because they wanted to avoid the conflict and drama they know the genre can bring.

The district said no, yet the conflict and drama still came.

Jamie Oliver, the British chef, focused the second season of his ABC television show, "Food Revolution," on Los Angeles public schools. In Tuesday night's premiere, Oliver was a defiant rabble-rouser challenging the superintendent and school board who were stonewalling his mission to bring in healthy food and combat rampant obesity.

L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon Cortines was shown at a school board meeting, telling Oliver that "I make the decision — you will not be in our schools." The chef then went on Ryan Seacrest's radio show (his production company produces "Food Revolution"), and called on parents to act.

"The point is, all over America, the food revolution is kicking off," Oliver said on Seacrest's show. "I come to L.A., and we're blocked."

L.A. Unified moved swiftly to defend itself Wednesday. The district invited reporters to its food processing facility in East Los Angeles. It's an assembly line where food — chicken wings on this day — is sorted and wrapped with the help of both human workers and robots. ("It's not processed and chopped meat," said David Binkle, deputy director of food services, pointing to wings on the line. "It's real chicken.")

Dennis Barrett, director of food services, said the district provides students with meals that are both tasty and healthful. That, he added, is a Herculean task considering the hundreds of thousands of meals served daily across the sprawling district — and all for a paltry 77 cents per meal.

The district has added more fresh fruits and vegetables to its menu. Candy, baked goods and sodas — as well as a la carte items — are no longer sold in school cafeterias.

At schools like Bravo Medical Magnet High School in East Los Angeles, the assembly line continues: more than 1,900 meals are served, and lunch has to be dished out, eaten and cleared in half an hour.

Of course, such meals received tepid reviews from Bravo students. The lasagna can be greasy. The meat is sometimes cold. Whatever the dish of the day is, it's likely to be unappealing to the eye. But the calzone is a favorite, as is kung pao chicken. The pre-wrapped peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are always a good choice.

But a little variety wouldn't hurt.

"I wish it was like in the movies, where they serve it in front of you and it's fresh," Karl Pascasio, 16, a Bravo sophomore, said with a smile. "That would be the ideal."

In a statement, Oliver said he was glad to know that "Food Revolution" had stirred a conversation and was hopeful it would drive the district to make its food preparation process more transparent.

L.A. Unified has been ambivalent about reality television after the NBC program "School Pride" left the district with a tab of more than $100,000 for repainting because of poor workmanship, said Robert Alaniz, a district spokesman.

The district reasserted that Oliver is more than welcome to lend a hand. He just has to leave the cameras behind.

rick.rojas@latimes.com

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