LA Times: How school lunch is made. It’s more complicated than you think

By Jenn Harris

At precisely 11:35 a.m. on a recent Friday, hundreds of kids with backpacks slung over their shoulders file through the blue and red doors of the Garfield High School lunchroom in East Los Angeles. Many carry books, folders and brightly colored notebooks. Some chat enthusiastically as they dig their hands into foil bags of crunchy snacks. A line quickly forms through the dining area and into the cafeteria, where the day’s offerings are on display under bright warming lights.

The students make their way down the line and fill their trays with wrapped cheeseburgers and spicy breaded chicken sandwiches, floppy wedges of cheese and pepperoni pizza, bowls of penne pasta with turkey meatballs under red sauce, plastic containers of chicken Caesar salad, vegan Chik’n nuggets, roasted potato wedges, bagged sliced apples and cartons of milk. Mostly, it looks like the quality of food you might find at a sports stadium concession stand.

“It’s constant, but we’re a well-oiled machine,” says the high school’s cafe manager, Mario Fiore. Every day that school is in session, Fiore arrives at the East Los Angeles school between 5:30 and 6 a.m. to open the kitchen, take care of the morning’s deliveries and input yesterday’s supper participation numbers into a computer. The culinary school graduate has worked at a country club, the Circus Circus hotel in Las Vegas and the Ritz Carlton, but for the past 16 years, he’s been with the L.A. school district, the second largest in the country.

“We usually feed around 1,500 kids a day,” he says.

Fiore estimates that he goes through around 600 to 800 pounds of fruit, 2,000 slices of bread, several hundred gallons of milk and 100 gallons of fruit juice a week. He’s used to feeding large groups, but what happens during that 30-minute lunchtime service at Garfield High School, and at dozens of other schools across the city, is nothing short of a small miracle.

Café L.A., the food services division of the Los Angeles Unified School District, serves more than 107 million meals a year. It’s a feat that requires an army of cooks, kitchen managers and nutritionists coordinating across more than 1,000 schools. They must adhere to strict sets of nutrition guidelines for each meal and, most important, appeal to the picky palates of kids.

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