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Healthy, kosher hot lunches rare in L.A. Jewish schools

by Jonah Lowenfeld

August 8, 2012 | 3:45 pm

Alex Felkai in one of his company’s kosher-certified food trucks last March. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

Alex Felkai in one of his company’s kosher-certified food trucks last March. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

On a Thursday this past March, at around 11:40 a.m., the alluring scent of chicken schnitzel – freshly breaded and pan-fried — wafted through the parking lot of New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills.

The source was a truck from Alex Felkai’s kosher catering company, Kosher on Location. Though the company does the majority of its business over the weekends, catering elegant weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs, to keep his core staff busy during the week, Felkai had been selling lunch at NCJHS – every day except Friday – since the school opened 10 years ago.

But when NCJHS’s approximately 370 students (including one of Felkai’s children) return to school this fall, the kosher lunch truck won’t be there.

“We tried,” Felkai said, explaining that the cost of preparing and serving sandwiches and salads, burgers and burritos to the approximately 80 students, faculty and staff who bought lunch from the truck, was prohibitive.

“It was a difficult decision, but I never really made money on it,” Felkai said. “I kind of did it hoping that things would grow.”

In Jewish day schools across Los Angeles, Felkai’s story is a common one. With the first day of classes less than a month away, NCJHS isn’t the only high school that may not offer an in-school alternative to bringing lunch from home.

The Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA) Girls School’s caterer is going into his third year, but the campus of the boys school on Pico Boulevard doesn’t have a kitchen or a cafeteria, nor is the school planning to build one anytime soon. At Shalhevet, a Modern Orthodox high school located on the corner of Fairfax Avenue and San Vicente Boulevard, the caterer who had been cooking in the kitchen during the last academic year just left.

“We’re busy interviewing caterers for next year,” Robyn Lewis, the new executive director at Shalhevet High School, told the Journal on Aug. 6.

On the whole, elementary schools seem more committed to providing a hot lunch program for their students, even if only a minority of students opts into the program.

Schwartz Bakery is about to start its third year providing food at the Yavneh Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox day school in Hancock Park.

“After working with our nutritionist, and after working with the school on a number of issues, we are very happy,” Yavneh Executive Director Lev Stark said.

According to Stark, about one-third of the approximately 470 students are signed up for the school lunch program.

At Yavneh, lunches can be bought in advance on a semiannual basis or purchased for $6 per day. The hot lunch program at Valley Beth Shalom Day School (VBSDS) in Encino offers parents and students more flexibility, to the point that students can choose to eat as few as two meals each month, or eat a hot lunch every single day.

“Overall, the parents appreciate the program,” said Gabrielle Baker, a mother of two students at the school who has been coordinating the hot-lunch program with another volunteer parent.

In addition to the flexibility, Baker said that parents appreciate the convenience of not having to make lunch for their children every day and feel that the food prepared by the synagogue’s in-house caterer, Starlite Catering, is reasonably nutritious.

“The only complaint is the cost,” Baker said. While it’s cheaper to purchase meals in advance, students can pay a little over $7 for a day’s lunch. “But there’s only a very limited amount that we can do to bring cost down.”

That’s because, Baker said, the food at VBSDS has to be certified kosher, and kosher food – and kosher meat in particular — is expensive.

Yavneh’s Stark also said cost was a hurdle to overcome.

“The big problem is the combination of trying to get a fantastic meal for $5. No one wants to pay $10 a meal,” he said. “This is where we worked very hard with Schwartz to make sure that it’s a viable business for them,” and that students still get a healthy and tasty meal that’s affordable.

Or, at least somewhat affordable. While Yavneh students pay $6 for lunch if they buy it that day (less if they sign up at the beginning of each semester), elementary school students attending schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District this fall will, by comparison, pay $1.50 if they buy lunch at school.

That lower price is due in part – but only in part — to the lower cost of non-kosher ingredients. It’s also a result of the subsidy (27 cents this year) the district receives from the United States Department of Agriculture for every meal it serves. The district receives more when it serves meals to the 80 percent of its students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

But the low prices also undoubtedly stem from the district’s being able to work on a massive scale. Compared to the LAUSD, which has more than 640,000 students in about 1,100 locations, each of Los Angeles’s private Jewish day schools is a boutique-sized operation.

“It just doesn’t work when maybe 80 kids eat,” said Felkai, who said that if NCJHS had been willing to charge all the students a lump sum of money (he said about $800 per year), he would have been able to feed everybody and make a profit.

“You have to make enough money to cover all the costs,” he said, “and if you only have a small volume, you just couldn’t do it.”

When a Jewish high school approached Brenda Walt to prepare lunch for its 200 female students, Walt, who runs her catering company from a synagogue’s kitchen, turned them down.

“It’s very, very hard because they really want it [the food] for nothing,” Walt said. The modest student volume also limits her ability to hold down per-meal costs.

Stark said Yavneh doesn’t mandate all of its students participate in its hot-lunch program, and that he didn’t know of any Jewish schools in Los Angeles that did so.

“But I do know if they did, it would solve the hot-lunch problem,” Stark said.

To keep their school-based caterers in business, small private Jewish schools at least should consider ways to protect them against the challenge of competition from other food vendors.

Randy Fried owns R House Foods, the catering company that recently left Shalhevet after occupying the school’s kitchen for a bit less than one year. Fried said he decided to leave the school in part because too few of the school’s approximately 200 students and faculty bought lunch at school for him to make a profit.

“By the time we got there,” Fried said, “the culture that existed was that 20 percent ate at school.”

Most students, Fried said, ordered food to be delivered to Shalhevet, and the most popular choices appeared to be fried chicken and pizza from kosher restaurants nearby.

Nancy Schiff, the school administrator at YULA Girls High School said that they specifically don’t allow students to order food to be delivered to the cafeteria.

“That would take away from Dudu,” the in-house caterer, who serves a made-to-order breakfast and a variety of set-meal and a la carte options for lunch, including sushi, wraps and various “kid-friendly foods” like lasagna, grilled cheese and quesadillas.

Students at YULA Girls School are allowed to bring their own lunches from home, of course; a few years ago, the overwhelming majority of the students at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy did just that, leading the school to seek out a new caterer, who is going into her second year at the Orthodox elementary school in Beverly Hills.

Every Friday is pizza day at the Orthodox elementary school; getting the crust right took some tweaking.

“At the beginning of the [2011-12 school] year, we tried out all whole wheat [pizza crust],” the school’s principal, Jeffrey Tremblay, said last May. “Didn’t go so well there. The kids were picking off the cheese, and that’s about it.”

That Friday, a few minutes before their lunch period ended and the middle school girls entered the cafeteria, a few boys headed back to the kitchen window for another slice.

“After the seconds,” Tremblay explained, “then they can, if they’re still hungry, they can pay for a third if they want to.”

To Tremblay, that sixth-grade boys want a bit more pizza at lunchtime is a sign that the school’s caterer is doing her job well – better than the previous caterer, who served only canned fruits and vegetables. But nutritionists see second helpings as problematic.

“It’s not like in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where there are certain nutrition standards,” said Leeann Smith Weintraub, a registered dietician in Los Angeles who works with children enrolled in private Jewish day schools and in public schools. At private Jewish schools, she said, “there tend to be a lot of issues with portion sizes and not really getting a good balance between the food groups.”

The menu, Tremblay said, is still a work in progress. This fall, Hillel students who buy lunch at school will be able to serve themselves from a salad bar that has improved from last year, when the only vegetables were mixed greens, cucumbers and tomatoes.

“Now, we’ve added onions, sprouts, garbanzo beans for protein,” Tremblay said. “And low-fat and nonfat dressings only.”

Still, nearly everyone — nutritionists, parents and even school administrators — agrees that bringing a homemade lunch could be the healthiest choice for any student.

“My friends’ children take their food to school,” said Maryam Maleki, a registered dietician who works with Jewish and non-Jewish clients. “They would rather their children take their food to school because it’s healthier, and they’ll sparingly allow their children to eat the food at school.”

That perfectly describes Chavi Wintner, a mother of two young students at Hillel. “I like to know what’s in the food that I make,” Wintner said, over a late-morning breakfast of oatmeal and unsweetened decaf iced coffee.

Her children don’t participate in Hillel’s hot lunch program; instead, Wintner packs lunches that always include some fresh fruit and might feature some roasted vegetables or a sandwich of melted cheese on bread.

Still, Wintner was very vocal in the push to eliminate the vending machines selling Gatorade at Hillel. “I think that nutrition is part of the school’s responsibility to teach,” she said.

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