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Los Angeles Unified students grade district's new menu choices

School officials hope to set the table with healthful food that students will actually eat.

August 29, 2011|By Mary MacVean, Los Angeles Times

Healthful food, however, costs money. For the 2010-11 year, the district has a food budget of about 95 cents per meal, up from last year because of cost-of-living increases and savings in other parts of the food division. Of its $120-million food budget, about $18 million will go to fresh produce, Binkle said.

L.A. Unified also is making changes to reduce calorie counts and sodium and to increase fruits and vegetables in anticipation of regulations expected next summer from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs school meal programs.

The school board is also likely to consider an updated nutrition policy this fall. Flavored waters could be one target; their sugar total "far exceeds what the superintendent wants," said Rick Boull't, the district's interim chief operating officer.

Supt. John Deasy has said he wants to make better nutrition a priority; he encouraged the board to ban the flavored milk.

Next up will be a look at the use of paper and plastic and whether the district can increase cooking from scratch in schools in a way that's equitable for all students. Half the schools have no kitchens, others have old, inoperable equipment, Binkle said.

All of this doesn't mean, however, that students can't find unhealthful things to eat. Officials and students acknowledge there's a vibrant underground market, with junk food carried onto campuses and sold by enterprising students and even some teachers.

High school campus vending machines and student stores also carry baked chips, granola bars and sports drinks, meals for some students.

Maria Leon, a mother of two students, attended the recent tasting session and said the district needs to improve all aspects of its food operation. Some students said the cafeterias run out of the best choices or the lines are too long. Others said the food is sometimes cold or overcooked. Several complained that they don't get enough time to get through the lunch line and eat; high school lunch periods are 30 minutes or less, officials say.

It's important for the district to get things right, said Matt Sharp, a senior advocate at the California Food Policy Advocates. "If the move to plain milk and the new menu the district is implementing don't work, there's a danger LAUSD would be back to all nuggets all the time. That would be a shame."

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