It's lunch period at Uptown's New Orleans Charter Math and Science High School, or SciHigh. Hundreds of students crowd the cafeteria line, some waiting for whole-wheat spaghetti and turnip greens, others choosing hot sausage on a whole-wheat bun with french fries and a salad, and many opting for the salad bar. I take the second option, but the fries are cold, the sausage is tasteless and rubbery, and the salad fits only the most elastic definition of a serving of vegetables.
Hannah Stoor, a junior, looks disdainfully at the contents of my styrofoam tray. "I don't like the food," she says. "I can never tell what the meat is because it's never labeled, and it tastes like it was made out of paste."
Kalie Indesc, also a junior, is similarly dissatisfied.
"I'm a vegetarian, so I don't get to eat lunch that often, and when I do, it's a bunch of unsubstantial side items," she explains, gesturing to her fries and side salad.
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, school districts were legally restricted only to providing traditional in-house food service, but once the Recovery School District (RSD) absorbed more schools and evolved into a full-fledged machine, it turned to outside corporate food service contractors like Aramark and Sodexo. Sodexo had the contract to serve RSD direct-run schools until July 2010, when the RSD switched to Aramark. RSD charters, on the other hand, have more autonomy over school food; they can choose to use either the RSD direct provider or a different outside contractor. Before Katrina, all New Orleans schools used Child Nutrition, the in-house service provided by the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB). All OPSB direct-run schools still use Child Nutrition, as do a number of OPSB charters (including SciHigh) and RSD charters, for a grand total of 11,500 students.
Rosie Jackson, the certified nutritionist who has headed Child Nutrition for years, is especially proud of her post-Katrina accomplishments.
"I think we've put more concentration on offering whole grain products and fresh fruits and vegetables, and our goal is to serve them daily," she says. "We've increased our healthy options, we cook from scratch, and we try to use limited pre-prepared products. We do not deep-fry, and the kids love our oven-baked chicken, shepherd's pie, and red beans and brown rice with 'turkey ham.'"
A look at the Child Nutrition menu, however, reveals that the baked chicken, shepherd's pie, and beans and rice with "turkey ham" will only be served once each this month. More commonplace, on the other hand, are items like Mexican chili mac, sweet-and-sour pork with brown rice and a tuna noodle bake.
Jackson's belief that Child Nutrition successfully provides a variety of nutritious and tasty breakfast, lunch and snack options for low-income students reveals a disconnect between the Orleans Parish administration and those who are actually eating the food. Barbara MacPhee, the veteran principal of SciHigh, agrees with her students.
"I knew the food wasn't good because I would occasionally eat it because I wanted to see what the kids were eating," she explains. "And when I say 'not good,' I mean that last week one day we had hard corn tacos with a little bit of meat, only two of them per person, and that came with a sweet roll with raisins and white sugar, and the vegetable was corn. Another day we had something called ribs, but I think it was some product in which pork is ground up and put into strips to look like ribs, and then a very sweet barbecue sauce is poured over it."
MacPhee is concerned about her students' health. According to the Louisiana Department of Education, in 2010 more than 84 percent of students in New Orleans public schools, or more than 32,000 students, qualified for free and reduced price meals through the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program. More than one-third of those students are either overweight or obese.
"Obesity is an epidemic, and I know we have kids who are hypertensive and high blood pressure and we have kids who are diabetic," MacPhee says. "Child Nutrition's response to my concerns is that this is the only thing kids will eat — stuff that's heavy in sodium and sugar."
The salad bar does not seem a fresh and healthy alternative, either. "The budget only allows for bagged lettuce, and oftentimes the carrot has been shredded days ago and is very dry," MacPhee explains. "They also offer ham cubes and shredded cheese, olives, which are high in sodium, and the kids really pile on the dressing."
Kristen Lozada, the chief operating officer for RSD charter New Orleans College Prep, says she does not have fond memories of the school's relationship with Child Nutrition.
"We contracted with them for the 2009 to 2010 academic year, but I wasn't particularly impressed with either the quality of the food or with their flexibility in terms of putting students first," she remembers. "Everything was very compliance-driven, which is extremely important, but there are ways to do that while also meeting student needs."
Companies like Aramark and Sodexo, on the other hand, do not necessarily provide a better product.
According to the second annual school food report card presented at a press conference in May by Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, a student think tank that works to improve the city's public schools, SciHigh received a D, but RSD-operated Fannie C. Williams Elementary, which uses Aramark, was given a D-minus — in part because the food was a mix of pre-cooked and freshly cooked, the majority of students said they do not like eating the food, and vegetarian options were not consistently available at breakfast and lunch. Of the nine schools included in the report, only SciHigh uses Child Nutrition.
Even though a lot of the schools have made significant improvements in food quality since last year's report card, Rethink communications director Mallory Falk says some problems are still very common.
"I've heard a lot that the food isn't identifiable, that they can't tell what they're eating, and that it's not properly cooked," she says.
While the RSD has been publicly supportive of the Rethinkers' initiative, Jackson remains unresponsive.
"Rethink has reached out to OPSB on multiple occasions, and we've invited Rosie Jackson to all of our summer press conferences, but she has not attended," says Grow Dat youth farm director Johanna Gilligan, who also serves as a food educator for Rethink.
School food reform is further hindered by the federal budget. Though the National School Lunch Program Fact Sheet states that "school lunches must meet the applicable recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans," which require school lunches to provide "one-third of the Recommended Dietary Allowances of protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories," current federal reimbursement rates are only $2.79 for lunch, $1.80 for breakfast, and 77 cents per snack.
"Reimbursement rates never decrease, they always go up because the price of food goes up, but the rates do not even come close to covering food and operating costs," says Chris Van Vliet, the food services director for all five FirstLine RSD charter schools. "We use Sodexo, so we pay them pretty much all of our reimbursement, leaving maybe eight cents per every meal served to come back into our offices to offset my salary and my assistant's salary. Out of that $2.79 on every lunch meal I also have to put enough money aside to help maintain my kitchen, and I've even trained myself to do basic equipment repairs because it's so expensive."
According to Van Vliet, student input is essential to running an economically efficient program.
"Meal participation is your main goal, because the more meals consumed, the higher your monthly reimbursement from the federal government, and the better your overall production average," he adds. "You're better making 400 cheeseburgers and having 395 consumed than just 100 consumed, so you want to have a lot of input in the menu as far as giving students choices. I'll make adjustments according to how well an item was received the last time it was served."
Making changes to the menu at Child Nutrition, which serves 21 schools, is a different story. Schools that choose to opt out of their district's provider, such as FirstLine's, also face the daunting process of becoming their own School Food Authority. The Louisiana Department of Education, which monitors the process, requires that a school applying for SFA status hire someone like Van Vliet, a staff member responsible for developing menus, overseeing staff, and ensuring compliancy with regulations.
"Most schools don't have the budget for it, and it's much harder for schools that go out on their own," Van Vliet notes. "I know that the International School of Louisiana runs its own kitchen without any contract management, but they're operating in the red."
New Orleans College Prep, on the other hand, has been more successful. Liberty's Kitchen, a program that trains at-risk youth to become independent in a culinary setting, began serving College Prep students fresh food made from scratch in-house in the fall of 2010, thanks in part to a $50,000 planning and development grant from the Emeril Lagasse Foundation.
The paperwork, Lozada recalls, was an enormous hassle.
"I found that there was no clear process or set of documentation to let me know what was required, so it was very unorganized, but most of these papers, which are things like permits to operate and the fire marshal's report, are things schools should have on file anyway," she says.
Once the paperwork is completed, a school must send administrators who will be a part of the program to Baton Rouge for a three-day training course focusing on procedural aspects, and the third and final step is opening a public bid for a vendor contract.
"It was very competitive, and I found during the individual meetings with each vendor that it was really up to me to push what was important to our organizations," she explains. "A lot of them did change their menus and prove to us that they could change what they do in other schools, and other vendors didn't and still showed us corndogs and other items that were not in line with our vision."
Though both Aramark and Sodexo bid on the contract, Liberty's Kitchen came out on top.
"Liberty's Kitchen has been an incredible provider of both service and quality, and they have exposed our kids to a whole new horizon of food," says College Prep founder and director Ben Kleban.
For now, Jackson remains confident that she will continue to win over her the students, which she calls her "customers."
"We're only going to win our customers over if we keep it exciting and fun," she says. "If kids don't enjoy it, they're not going to come back for it."