Eating equality in Los Altos

Photos by Eliza Ridgeway/Town Crier
Los Altos High students wait in line for lunch, including the crowd-favorite barbecue chicken.

The Town Crier recently sent a reporter to join the lunch line at Los Altos High School’s cafeteria. Eavesdropping on student commentary reflected a mélange of satisfaction and discontent.

“The chicken looks hella good.”

“This looks like jail food.”

Why did we return to the steam trays of our youth? A food fight is underway – again – at Los Altos High. A food truck has set up shop behind the school’s tennis courts for years, raising the ire of residents on Jardin Drive and drawing heat for selling items like sodas that are banned from campus eateries. Nearby restaurant owners who would like a piece of the students’ lunch money also rankle at the idea of a competitor who doesn’t pay the same licensing fees they do.

In response to these concerns, the Los Altos City Council is drafting an ordinance limiting where food trucks can roam in residential areas. The trucks are already restricted in Mountain View, which requires them to park more than 100 feet from schools.

Los Altos High operates three food venues for students: a pizza cart run by the Parent Teacher Student Association, a snack bar also staffed by parents and a full-service cafeteria that offers hot meals, sandwiches and salads.

Making a foray down the food line, the Town Crier learned more about the cafeteria that competes with the popular truck.

A national system with local flavor

More than 30 million children eat in cafeterias as part of the National School Lunch Program, governed by a complex series of state and federal rules. The government encourages children to eat fewer calories and substitute more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Those goals are accomplished by an arcane sequence of rules that Los Altos High Food Services Director Debra Godfrey reviews each year. Health advocates have helped shape the rules, but so have lobbyists for groups like the National Potato Council.

Godfrey tracks student preferences each year and knows that nachos, the fajita bowl and barbecue chicken typically draw a crowd. Hot dogs turn out to be the sleeper favorite, disappearing with surprising speed.

Godfrey designs meals to fit the rules and a tight budget, but she’s fierce about taking pride in the taste of her food. Silicon Valley tech firms call it “dogfooding” when a company samples its own product. Staff at Los Altos High stick by that rule, too.

“I’m not going to serve you anything I’m not going to eat,” Godfrey said.

The cafeteria staff plans a monthly menu and posts it at Barbecue chicken, baked beans, corn on the cob and biscuits were on the menu when the Town Crier visited. The chicken wings were cooked to perfection, the corn was a tad overcooked, the biscuits were reasonably fluffy and the beans lived up to the sticky-sweet standard of those that come from a can.

“I eat on campus when I don’t bring my lunch. I love the potato bar and the fajita bowl,” said Avis Doctor, director for fiscal services at Los Altos High. “We want it to taste good and look good.”

Doing the lunchtime math

Doctor monitors how much money students contribute and how much the district spends to keep the food coming. The school continually adds new dishes to chase student palates, such as smoothies, hot wings, cheesecake and breadsticks. Federal bulk-food shipments provide a baseline from which the lunch ladies can improvise.

“I look at what we can get and then calculate what else to add,” Godfrey said.

If the government provides ground beef at a vast discount, she can add sour cream, green onions and jalapeños to enhance the taste and appearance. In a best-case financial scenario, guacamole might even make the list.

The more students eat in the cafeteria, the more subsidized commodities the federal government allocates to the school – freeing up money to spend on special extras like guacamole. The federal shipments help Los Altos High serve food at a discount to students, but the kitchen staff rules out some of it for not being worth the loss of taste.

Godfrey described turning down the government’s alarming-sounding “Beef Crumble” because it was so horrid she wouldn’t eat it herself – and thus wouldn’t serve it. Some quick research revealed that the Crumble is precooked ground beef cut with soy protein, frozen and shipped in cases throughout the country.

The five-item hot meal costs $3, but students from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals at 40 cents. The government supplies subsidies for all students eating lunches, ranging from $2.93 for students who pay nothing to 28 cents for the students who pay $3.

“If you need to eat, come to us. No one gets turned down if they don’t have 40 cents,” Godfrey said. “That’s why we can never let this go – and it’s not even just the students with reduced price. (Students) get a lot for $3.”

That price covers the ingredients for the hot meal, which cost approximately 60 cents the day we visited, in addition to the expense of operating the kitchen. Los Altos High sources its produce locally from a Mountain View-based supplier that offers fruits and vegetables at a lower price than their main supplier, SYSCO, the food corporation behind much of the nation’s institutional fare.

Godfrey has reigned over the kitchens at Los Altos and Mountain View high schools for 17 years and has seen many changes during that time. She and Doctor reminisced about the cafeterias of their youth, with white-clad lunch ladies in hairnets and perpetually lukewarm milk. The milk at Los Altos High nestles in a refrigerated case.

Stripping away class markers

You can come to know a student body through what they eat. The economics of the lunch hall reflect the region’s hollow structure, with wealthy families, the very poor and few in between. Approximately 90 percent of the students who apply for subsidized meals at Los Altos High qualify for entirely free lunches rather than the subsidized middle ground.

School lunches are about more than flavor, personal preference or even nutrition standards. The cafeteria system as students know it was carefully designed to help supply meals for children who don’t always get enough to eat at home. Although many students at Los Altos High may have family money to spend downtown or at the food truck, not all do. The breakfasts and lunches on campus aren’t intended as just a convenience for people too busy to pack a lunch bag. A seldom-spoken part of the school lunch debate relates to affluence and the idea that mealtimes shouldn’t be segregated by cost.

Anyone who stood in line as a child from a poor family remembers the systems of the past, when every status-conscious student could see who was paying with the differently colored “subsidized” discount card. The government now audits how cafeterias structure their payment systems, attempting to make sure that a parent’s income isn’t obviously flagged.

At Los Altos High’s cafeteria, all students type in their ID at checkout. For some, that triggers a hidden discount. Others just tap into the money parents have deposited to their account. At the PTSA pizza stand or the taco truck, only cash secures a meal.

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