Laura Zapata, left, and Marisol Camarena, 15-year-old 11th-graders at… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
On the menu at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex cafeteria on a recent Friday was petite beef patties on whole wheat buns, a cup of roasted potato wedges, an apple and a carton of 1% milk.
Together, the carefully portioned and paired foods amounted to about 730 calories — safely below a recently implemented 850-calorie cap for high school lunches.
But walk out of the cafeteria, through the circle of giggling cheerleaders and the huddle of boys eyeing them, to the long line of students snaking around a corner and you'll find another option: the student store.
With a few crumpled bills and a smile at the woman running it, a sophomore makes off with an alternative lunch: a bag of cheese balls; a bottle of pineapple, peach and mango juice; three packages of brown sugar Pop-Tarts; and a strawberry ice cream bar. The items equated to 1,200 calories.
Unlike the Los Angeles Unified School District's cafeterias, which are managed by its food services department, the more than 160 student stores on middle and high school campuses have a bit more autonomy.
For students, the stores provide an alternative to the cafeteria food one sophomore described as "meh" and a junior called "crazy healthy." For the schools, the stores provide a much-needed cash supplement for their slashed budgets. Proceeds pay for such things as athletic uniforms, school dances and graduation decorations.
At Miguel Contreras, Marisol Morataya is the snack bar czar.
The 20-year-old started working at the student store her junior year and was hired to stay on as an office assistant after graduating.
"Gimme two fishies," a boy said.
Morataya laughed as she handed him two bags of Goldfish crackers with her left hand and his change with her right. "Next," she said.
A dark-eyed boy barked his order — a school beanie and a bottle of water — over the music blaring out of his earphones. Morataya took a $50 bill from him and squinted her eyes at it. "Yup, he's real."
When things get busy, Luke Shen mans the store's second window.
On a recent Friday, the school's financial manager ran his left hand through his hair as he tallied snack sales on a calculator. So far this year the school has made about $7,300 a month on drink and snack sales, he said, but there's still never enough money to go around.
Shen also patrols the school's vending machines. The companies that stock them usually stick to district-approved items, he said, but not always. Last year, for example, he spotted Flamin' Hot Cheetos behind the glass and had them removed.
"They want the business," Shen said. "But we say, 'If it's not on the list, it's not going to happen.' "
Despite a 7-year-old district policy requiring that snacks meet nutritional standards, the stores end up selling snacks that are "kind of hit-and-miss," said David Binkle, the district's interim director of food services.
"People don't know the rules," Binkle said. "Some student stores go to Costco and buy whatever the kids will eat."
Faced with an onslaught of complaints from students about the new healthful food options last year, L.A. Unified scaled them back a bit. Instead of quinoa, for example, burgers are back — albeit without the cheese.
So far the changes seem to be paying off, Binkle said, noting that more students are eating in cafeterias this year than last. The nation's second-largest district serves about 650,000 meals a day.
But for Amilcar Martinez, the cafeteria's changes aren't enough.
"The cafeteria food is meh," the sophomore said as he shoved his hand into the 50-cent bag of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal from the student store.
Campus stores aren't the only way around the nutrition requirements. Crafty students sell prohibited items while others get food from off-campus fast food joints.
On a recent day at Roosevelt High School, for example, a baseball player hawked Flamin' Hot Cheetos for a buck a bag and a group of juniors had a friend's mom bring them food from off campus — a pile of tortilla chips drenched with liquid cheese, sour cream and a heaping serving of carne asada.
The district, meanwhile, is attempting to market its food options as best it can. A few weeks ago, for example, officials invited a group of elementary school students and their parents to a meal — served on china — with former White House chef Walter Scheib. If they can convince young students that healthful options are cool, the district reasons, perhaps the message will catch.
Before asking the group to pledge to curb junk food and eat more healthfully, Scheib acknowledged how hard it can be.
"It's like stopping smoking," he said. "It's an ugly and brutal process."