Here's a Better Lunchroom

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You may have recently heard or read some negative press about Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) after the findings of an audit were made public last week. The audit, conducted by a private consulting company, and not the internally by the District, reported LAUSD'S system is inefficient and ineffective at doing what it needs to do, educate children.

It's a pretty hard blow but not all bad. I think the negatives certainly make a better news story than the positives. There is progress being made within this district. For one, the Food Services Department (FS) is putting forth a lot of effort to improve what is served in the cafeteria. One of the problems that's been identified in the high school and middle school cafeterias is too many lunch choices. Right now students have 15 entree items they can pick from. Sounds great right?

But only the first batch of kids that come through the line actually have the 15 items in front of them to choose. Soon items start to run out and the kids at the end of the line have to take whatever is left (at least that is what I'm told... I'm still doing my site visits to see for myself what's really happening). The menu items are very similar from day to day. So there are few surprises.

FS came up with an idea to only offer seven items, with those seven being different entrees every day over a two week cycle. So, the menus only repeat every two weeks. Part of the idea is giving the kids something to look forward to i.e. "hey it's chicken Caesar salad day, yay, I can't wait for lunch". The other idea was to create menus the students would perceive as healthier but still like and eat. The department chose 11 schools to test out this new system over a 90 pilot period.

Students were surveyed about what kinds of entrees they'd like to see on the menu. And from there (in a nutshell) FS came up with the two week menu cycle. In order to implement the new menu FS made sure the cafeterias were fully staffed to handle the new system. Staffing is an issue because the hiring process is inefficient, so there are inevitably many schools that need more cafeteria employees. These schools had it good!

The 90 days have since been up and the pilot was a success. The kids really seemed to like the changes and new menus. I visited one of the schools, Garfield High School and I have to say I was pretty impressed. The cafeteria was set up like a food court with seven different stations. That day in particular the chicken Caesar salad was served along with pasta marinara, chicken teriyaki bowl, peanut butter and jelly, vegetarian rib sandwich (the menu cycle boasts two vegetarian options a day), a hamburger and a chicken fiesta bowl.

I was pleased to see the PB&J was on whole wheat bread and half of the rolls offered were also whole wheat. I don't think the rice was brown rice but perhaps we'll get there soon. What I found really fantastic was a huge display of fresh fruits and vegetables! There were cut up strawberries, melons, plenty of whole fruit and side salads. The kids were allowed to take as much of the fruit and vegetables as they wanted. How great is that?

I made the visit with several other adults, so granted the cafeteria manager did know we were coming. He may have been putting his best foot forward for our benefit. But even if that is true, it shows that a system like this can happen. I'll have to go back on a day when they don't know I'm coming and see how it compares.

The plan now is to phase this new menu into all of the middle schools and high schools in due time. I am anxious to go to some of the other schools that haven't had the pilot to really be able to discern if there is a difference. I do believe progress is being made and we're on the right path, it's just a long journey to get there.

I'd love to hear about any cafeteria improvements your school or district has made. As always, have a fruit and veggie filled day!
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About the Author

Registered dietitian Andrea N. Giancoli is a nutrition advocate, consultant and educator.

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