Yakisoba noodles with ancho-chile chicken, spinach-ricotta manicotti, and posole with chicken subbing for pork sound like the backbones of a a pretty decent menu, right? Well, this year, these items and more can be found on the cafeteria trays at Los Angeles Unified School District campuses thanks to the efforts of Mark Baida, the district’s executive chef, and his team. Where are the corn dogs and pizza? They’re gone. (Yeah, we have mixed feelings, too.) So are soft drinks and flavored milk. So, who is the man taxed with trying to please kids’ picky palates as well as demanding parents? Before starting with LAUSD in 2006, Baida honed his skills as USC’s executive chef as well as behind the stoves at a number of area restaurants. He and his colleagues are responsible for feeding more than 650,000 school-age squirts daily between breakfast, lunch, and snacks. We sat down with Baida at the Newman Center, one of the district’s main culinary facilities, to discuss what kids will eat, what they won’t, and why “you can’t be scared of it—it’s only food.”
What have been the biggest changes in the last few years with school food?
It’s an evolving change. Where I’ve seen the greatest change is when members of our team say, “At home I buy whole wheat bread. I never did that before. I saw you guys doing it for the kids so I figured it’s good, it’s the right thing to do.” Also, now, I introduce a chicken posole with vegetables to the kids, and it’s amazing how we talk about the details and forget that they’re eating a bowl of hominy with vegetables and chicken. We’re talking about the Indian curry and I’m asking the kids, “Do you want it more lemony? Do you want it more this or that?” We’ve already gotten past that they are eating a plate of vegetables with a sauce from India. And when somebody comes in now and wants to point the finger, which is OK, it’s interesting that we’re not talking about chicken nuggets, grilled cheese, and pizza anymore. At least we’re not having the same conversations that we had five and 10 years ago.
What were those conversations?
“Why do you have this? This isn’t good. Pizza is not a food.” Chicken nuggets, ketchup—all these things that were in the K-12 segment people bad-mouthed. You can’t have those same conversations. We should be talking about the fact that we change the lives of people every single day and people don’t even realize it. With 660,000 meals a day, 80 percent are free and reduced in price. If that number keeps going up we’re a bad city. We need to change. That number should be dropping. Without our meals, these kids won’t eat. That’s a fact. And every parent or guardian has the golden, free opportunity to package their own lunch for their own child. I’m not stopping it. You can do it. I don’t see it, though.
What has surprised you most about the eating habits of L.A. kids?
The parents. Kids are willing to taste anything. Kids are not the block in the road. I could put 50 kids in a room and we could talk about food and travel and they’re willing to taste. It’s when adults get in the room that things get tricky, because they’re the ones who set up the roadblock. Because of media, because of the demographics of our schools, kids are willing to try many different things. The adult is more surprised than the kid.
What are the biggest challenges of introducing food like this to kids?
I think kids like consistency; kids like structure. As an example, they could watch a movie 10 times and you’d be bored after the second showing. There is a structure to it that entices them and involves them and they enjoy it. If they’ve been eating the same thing all the time and get it at home all the time, do they know any better? They don’t until somebody communicates, educates them and talks about it. We just want food to be in the forefront. We want food to be education. Lunch needs to be part of the education day. Unfortunately, it’s not.
How big is your staff district-wide?
We have 5,000 employees in food service. Each kitchen could have anywhere from four to 12 people per kitchen. But research and development is all myself with the canvas of my customers. I’m kind of a one-man show. I must think, “Can I do it a million times and do it right?”
Have you ever tried out any dishes that were complete bombs?
Oh yeah. Of course; it’s food. Children’s palates are different. It’s not about what I like. It’s up to them what they like and what they want. Something that is sweet to me, they want it to be spicy. If you say, “Do you like this, or do you like this?” they’re going to tell you. They will tell you it sucks. And that is fine. That is what I want because they eat it everyday.
Where do you eat when you’re not eating kids’ food?
I’m a very international person. My tastes are like my travels. They are always different. And I always want the opportunity to learn. I have three passions in life: cuisine, people, and culture. And I think that speaks for the food. I can go from eating with a couple buddies outside a handroll truck to eating on the finest white tablecloth in the world. Food is food. I’m always open to listen.