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Jewish Journal

Jewish school lunch may be a mixed bag, but public school lunch is no picnic, either

by Jonah Lowenfeld

August 14, 2012 | 3:38 pm

A screengrab from the lunch menu for this week at an elementary school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Courtesy schoolmenu.com

As anyone who read the article in this week’s issue of The Journal about the dearth of healthy, hot and kosher lunches in Los Angeles Jewish schools learned, bringing a bagged lunch is probably the healthiest and best thing a parent can do for their children at lunchtime.

But packing lunches isn’t easy, and for many students attending schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, 80 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced school lunch, bagged lunches are just unaffordable.

So what did students – who returned to LAUSD schools on Aug. 14 for the first day of classes – find in their lunch lines?

For starters, access to drinking water in every school cafeteria, in accordance with a new California state law. A handful of schools equipped with salad bars. And a menu of foods that has gone back to basics, after some widely publicized attempts to diversify the offerings by introducing quinoa and hummus proved unsuccessful.

“Rather than giving them a tater tot, let’s give them a real potato,” David Binkle, acting director of food services for the LAUSD, said. There’s pizza on the menu, but it’s “more of an Italian flatbread-style” dish, he said, with a thinner crust and a random shape, thanks to its “natural, hand-laid crust.”

All of the food served by LAUSD to it students conforms to regulations set up by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which means that there’s a balance of foods on every student’s plate. Every aspect, down to the colors of the vegetables (this many orange vegetables, this many green leafy ones), is regulated, Binkle said.

“It’s very restrictive, but we have an epidemic of childhood obesity in America,” he said.

The food program isn’t limited to public school students per se – Binkle said that the Catholic Diocese, for instance, runs a USDA-funded program – but he knew of no private Jewish schools participating through the LAUSD.

In researching the article about kosher food in Jewish day schools, I heard a lot from school administrators and lunch program organizers about how much more difficult it is for private schools to provide school lunches for their students – particularly when those lunches have to be kosher, healthy and at least somewhat affordable.

But getting the publicly funded food into kids’ bellies is no walk in the park, either.

“The hardest thing to deal with is that child must take a certain amount of food, and they can only decline so much of the choices,” Binkle said. So if, for example, a child who qualifies for free or reduced lunch only wants to eat a banana for breakfast, the employee ringing up the purchase will tell the child to pick out two more items in order for the school to get credit for having served the meal. Otherwise, that child will have to pay for the banana alone.

Understandably, a lot of food ends up in the trash.

“Obviously, teaching kids to take fruits and vegetables is what we want to do,” Binkle said. “But we’re trying to teach kids social skills, citizenship, about the environment. How does that [pushing kids to take food they don’t want] lead to teaching them good environmental skills?”

Still, the way public schools serve students makes nutritionists happy, who see restricting a student’s choices in the lunch line to healthy foods in specific amounts as a way to inculcate good eating habits.

The best offerings just might be in the 80 schools in the LAUSD that have salad bars in their lunchrooms.

The district manages 1100 locations, according to Binkle, and though parents would all like to have salad bars in their children’s schools, many of the schools have their students eat outside, which means that the food had to be prepackaged.

“The issue with the salad bars is that they have to be in a covered four-walled, enclosed room,” Binkle said.

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