Prior to the start of this school year, Los Angeles Unified embarked on a mission to provide students with what Superintendent Alberto Carvalho describes as “healthy” and “delicious” meals – for free. The Los Angeles Times’ Howard Blume even touted the new dishes as “appealing [...] to youthful taste buds,” describing such options as “honey biscuits, mango smoothies, and meatball sub sandwiches,” cinnamon rolls, ramen, and “kung pao chicken, honey glazed with brown rice and broccoli.” Clearly, Mr. Blume has not seen the lunch served at Eagle Rock High School.
On Wednesday, September 28 there were three lunch options at ERHS (all pictured): a “Sicilian Style Pizza” (crustless, disconcertingly sweet, served in a plastic pouch that glistened with condensation); a dry burger patty accompanied by two french fries; or “Salisbury Steak” – a perfect dome of mashed potatoes, another flavorless patty, and “gravy.” All meals were served with a plum and a corn muffin. “It tasted like what I imagine a mummy would taste like,” remarked tenth-grader Rex Hoskinson of the burger patty.
The “Salisbury Steak” and “Sicilian Style Pizza.”
As a student who has tried LAUSD school lunch at least annually (if not weekly) since 2012, I can confirm that the fare has improved little in the last decade. A glance at our school’s menu for the month of September reveals a dearth of the delights promised by the Superintendent, with the same “All Star Turkey Hot Dog” and “Beef Teriyaki Dippers Rice Bowl” that have been on the menu since I was in Kindergarten. The only dish promised in the L.A. Times article that appeared on the ERHS menu on the 28th was a smoothie bowl, but it was nowhere to be seen in the cafeteria.
Most students I interviewed agreed that the lunch served at LAUSD schools is sub par, and the boisterous, crowded cafeteria environment doesn’t add to the dining experience. So, I embarked on a journey to report on international school lunches that might provide a genuinely healthy and delicious alternative.
“When I have holidays, I miss the school food,” says Henri, a student in year thirteen (senior year) at South Hampstead High School in Camden, London. In the same week that I received a damp slice of LAUSD pizza, Henri had a bowl of mixed bean soup that was “just incredible.” “I think [it] was maybe the best soup that I’ve ever had in my life,” they said. “I had so many bowls of it.” (Yes, they’re allowed to get seconds.) Besides soup, students at Henri’s school have the option of a vegetarian or non-vegetarian main course served with rice and vegetables every day, as well as a premade sandwich, a panini, pasta, or a salad on the side, all of which can be packed up in to-go boxes to take to club meetings during their 75-minute lunch period.
The meals at South Hampstead High are served on ceramic plates with a full set of silverware or in to-go containers with utensils and cups for water, all made from biodegradable materials; and though the serving area can get crowded at times, there are staff there to keep things orderly and to make sure that younger students have put together a balanced plate. Though Henri has never attended another school, the food there has been consistently flavorful and nutritious, with plenty of options for vegetarians like them to choose from, including themed meals to celebrate holidays like Carribean Independence Day and Chinese New Year. “I think everyone really loves the school lunches and feels really grateful to be able to have such an amazing, nutritious selection of foods,” Henri says.
Michael Moore’s 2016 documentary “Where to Invade Next” explores several facets of social support systems in the E.U., including the French school system. A segment of the film shows a public elementary school in a small village in rural Normandy, where children are taught to use metal forks and knives and are given water with their four course meal, which includes scallops with curry sauce and carrots, lamb skewers and chicken over couscous, a cheese course, and a dessert. “Even the poorest schools in France have food like this,” Moore remarks, with students in even the lowest-income areas receiving “at least one cheese option every day,” and entrees like cod in dill sauce, fennel beef stew, and caramel or vanilla flan for dessert.
It’s not just European countries that serve delicious school lunches. Kani, a student from Malawi, shared this picture of her school lunch that same week in September – a rice bowl topped with cooked vegetables, beans, and grilled chicken. This meal is higher in protein than the ERHS Salisbury steak, and likely contains more vitamins than any of the 28th’s entree options (where vegetables were virtually nonexistent).
It seems that every few years LAUSD rebrands its menu without implementing any actual change, and though the United States’ second largest school district is nowhere near the size of a small Normandy town, the meals could likely be shifted towards nourishing, on-site preparation with a budget less focussed on new marketing campaigns and plastic packaging. However, real change won’t come about until the administration and the media acknowledge that the new meal options are not regularly served at every school, and LAUSD considers fundamental changes instead of feel-good ones.