Los Angeles Unified is joining with other large U.S. school districts in a "historic" alliance designed to drive food costs down and quality up as part of a growing movement to provide youngsters with tasty and healthful cafeteria meals.
David Binkle, LAUSD's food services chief, is in Miami today for the launch of the Urban School Food Alliance, which unites districts from Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, Dallas, Orlando and Miami-Dade in their effort to provide more wholesome options for kids.
"This is a historic thing," Binkle said in an interview earlier this week. "Together, we're providing 2.2 million meals a day, and we're looking to change how and what were serving."
The districts plan to use their sheer size -- New York, L.A., Chicago and Miami-Dade are the top four in enrollment -- to create a "purchasing powerhouse" that can negotiate the best prices for commodities and paper goods.
"It's a bottom-line issue, trying to get better and higher-quality food for the same or an even-better cost," Binkle said.
Beyond cost, the alliance wants to follow LAUSD's lead in eliminating polystyrene serving trays in school cafeterias.
Food service leaders also want to make the meals more appealing, so there may come a day when students get their meal on a plate rather than a tray -- just as they do at home, Binkle said. There's even talk of getting rid of the spork.
Binkle said the alliance is building on efforts to battle the obesity epidemic in America, where more than one-third of children and adolescents are considered overweight or obese.
The federal government overhauled the nutritional standards for school lunches to expose kids to more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, but serving more wholesome food doesn't mean students will eat it.
That's why Binkle implemented a new menu this academic year with such offerings as pulled pork sandwiches and Italian calzones that are more appetizing than previous fare but still meet federal guidelines.
Los Angeles Unified is also competing for the first time in Cooking Up Change, in which high school students from districts around the U.S. invent and create meals that could be served in school cafeterias.
Teams of culinary students from six LAUSD campuses will vie this month to have their meal added to the district's menu rotation and to compete in the national contest, which is sponsored by the nonprofit Healthy Schools Campaign.
"We're trying to create more and more awareness about healthy eating," Binkle said. "This is another opportunity for students to get involved."
At Francis Polytechnic High in Sun Valley, seniors Kenya Rodriguez and Jazmin Sandoval spent Wednesday morning perfecting their entry, a zesty chicken wrap made of sauteed white meat, barbecue sauce and a pinch of cayenne pepper.
Rounded out with blanched broccoli, a fresh apple and a yogurt-and-peach parfait, the meal meets all of the government's nutritional rules, along with the requirement of costing about $1 to make.
"It would be really exciting to win and to have our dish on the menu," Jazmin said. "It would mean that we got to be a part of something that is amazing."
Kenya said she and her cooking partner have been working hard to make their entry something special. They rejected their first try -- tuna something -- as unappealing, and used trial-and-error to invent Kenya's Jazzy Wrap.
Now, they can get their meal cooked and plated in 20 minutes with barely a word passing between them.
"It's called practice," their culinary instructor, chef Bill Higgins, told them. "If you have to stop and think about it, you're not ready. You have to be like a machine."
Neither teen has ever been to Washington, D.C., where the national contest will be held, so the chance to win the district cook-off holds extra appeal. That means the chefs-in-training will have to best the competition, which includes a chicken fajita wrap from Banning High and a barbecue-chicken pizza from Doyle Career Center.
Even if Kenya's Jazzy Wrap doesn't grab first prize, its creators say the effort has been worthwhile.
Kenya now aspires to be a chef like Higgins -- "I've got a passion for cooking," she said -- and plans to enroll in the culinary program at Glendale Community College after she graduates.
She and Jazmin have also become more aware of their own diets and those of their families, making veggie-filled omelets and other healthful fare when they pitch in at home.
"It's a great feeling to make something on your own," Jazmin said.