WILL ROGERS — Close to noon on a bright Thursday in February, young children rushed to the Will Rogers Elementary School cafeteria with one thing on their minds: lunch.
And what they just did on the playground, maybe a favorite book, cartoon, animal or any of the million things whizzing through the craniums of children younger than some sock puppets.
So perhaps it was lost on them that school officials had pulled a bait and switch when the cafeteria employee handed over a tray of yesterday’s leftover chicken fajitas or the Thursday option of three-cheese ravioli.
The ravioli took on a brown tinge lent by the new whole grain pasta used to make it, much like the tortillas used in the fajitas. The chicken comes only from name brand companies like Tyson and the pico de gallo salsa, served in individual paper cups, was made from scratch on site.
Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s Food Services Division struggles to make sure that kids not only get enough food to get them through the day, but that it’s the right sort to power their young bodies and eager minds.
That can be a challenge when boxed in on all sides by state and federal health regulations, parents concerned about the quality of the food their children are eating and the kids themselves, who they must treat like customers rather than mini-food vacuums.
“Since we are a ‘self-sustaining’ department and do not receive support from the district’s general fund, all money received in the form of reimbursements and at the cash register is used to pay for food, supplies, equipment, salaries and benefits,” said Orlando Griego, director of food services.
That means that the department not only has to provide the required lean meats, fruits, vegetables and whole grains required by the federal and state governments, they have to do it in a way that attracts children or risk running themselves out of business.
Items lauded by some parents, like edamame beans at Santa Monica High School, don’t turn out to sell well, Griego noted, and many requests for high-end meats and cooking from scratch stretch the budget and the realities of school sites’ small kitchens and staffs.
The cost of a full-price lunch in an SMMUSD elementary cafeteria is $3, while middle and high school meals cost $3.50. The reduced price for that is 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch.
Getting prices to come in at those levels to keep the entire operation self-sustaining and within state and federally mandated nutritional guidelines takes negotiation with major food providers.
Unexpected things can turn kids off to food, said Dona Richwine, the nutrition specialist for the district.
The ravioli served that Thursday stuffed high with three low-fat cheeses were smothered in a salty red tomato sauce and, at the request of some children, a smattering of parmesan cheese.
Masking the look of the ravioli themselves could be helpful in getting kids to eat them, Richwine said.
“They’re made with whole grain and they look too brown,” she said. “Kids aren’t used to it.”
How the food gets eaten also plays a role. Finger foods are universally popular, which is part of why pizza, arguably similar in flavor and basic ingredients as the ravioli, is one of the most popular items on the school menu.
Cafeteria employees are on hand to guide students around the salad bar, sourced twice a week from the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market and to make sure that kids get the required elements on a plate.
There’s even a vigilant monitor stationed next to the ranch dressing in the middle of the cafeteria.
After that, it’s up to the student what goes in the stomach versus the trash.
Getting kids to eat healthier foods doesn’t necessarily require a full menu overhaul.
Los Angeles Unified School District tried that in 2011 after pulling chocolate and strawberry-flavored milks from its menues at the prompting of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.
The district responded with a complete revision of the foods it offered and the way the food was prepared, but kids refused to eat it, dropping out of the lunch program in droves.
Getting kids foods that they’ll eat in school is critical not just to the bottom line, but to the child’s overall development.
Children need regular amounts of whole grain, fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats and legumes like beans, said Diana Saikali, a registered dietitian and certified specialist in pediatric nutrition with Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA.
“From my experience, a lot of kids have breakfast and lunch at school,” Saikali said. “It’s a big part of their diet for the day.”
Harriet Fraser, a mother of a student at Grant Elementary, is committed to changing the look of meals in SMMUSD.
Fraser jumped into the school lunch issue last year when she and other parents began advocating for an end to sugary chocolate milk at schools in favor of unflavored low- or non-fat milks.
That ended in compromise — parents could sign a form restricting their kids from flavored milk — and Fraser moved on to tackle bigger fish, like the salad bar.
The school salad bars are touted as a major accomplishment by Food Services.
Nearly all of the fruits and vegetables are sourced directly from local producers that sell their wares on Saturdays and Wednesdays at the Farmers’ Market, something Griego calls “two-day picked.”
The district has worked with many of their producers since the inception of the salad bar program in 1996.
Fraser worries that in addition to vegetables, the bars also contain meats rich in nitrates, a preservative, hidden in the back of the Grant Elementary cafeteria and generally unappealing to students.
The ubiquitous ranch dressing can also go, she said.
“It’s all about trying to help improve things, not to attack,” Fraser said.
She hopes that the small changes will be stepping stones of advocacy that can later change to fundamental shifts in the foods offered at schools and how they’re prepared.
The dream would be an end to processed food and an ability to cook meals from scratch on campus, something that’s impossible now with the equipment available. Changes like that could help get ahead of the diabetes and obesity epidemics seen in recent years in the United States, diseases that cost more down the road than they do to prevent.
“We can only do these small increments at the moment. It’s going to be slow, and it can’t happen overnight,” Fraser said. “I really feel it will, though, because it has to.”