The last time I was in a high school cafeteria, Pluto was still a planet, Rihanna had not gone bad yet, and the president we thought was crazy was actually very sane in retrospect. We were also eating lots of unhealthy crap in the school cafeteria, and my daily lunch (as one of two vegans in my high school) was either a bucket of french fries or a packet of Oreos and a Diet Coke #nutrition.
Luckily, times have changed and thanks to a group of very vocal student activists, the Los Angeles Unified School district has entered into a pilot program testing a new vegan menu that is both nutritious and tasty.
I recently had the pleasure of visiting Roosevelt High school in Boyle Heights Los Angeles for an LAUSD vegan taste test and got a chance to try out some of their new vegan lunch items including a Vegan Teriyaki Burger, Bean Tamale, and a Bean Chili with corn chips, and SPOILER ALERT – it was awesome!
Joining me for this vegan taste test were three of Roosevelt High’s most socially active students, who are not vegan but are open minded and willing to try the new vegan items to provide honest feedback.
The LAUSD was also kind enough to provide a beautiful spread, showcasing the variety, freshness, and quality of some of the district’s vegan and plant based lunch items.
Let’s take a look at just three of the five items offered, and what the students and I had to say about them:
Laura (12th Grade): “It’s really not what I was expecting at all. The texture is like real meat, and it even tasted real too. I like it because it was realistic and it could have fooled me.”
José (10th Grade): “You couldn’t tell that it wasn’t real meat – like the texture was really spot on. I thought it was going to be mushy like vegetables, but the texture is like a real burger.”
Odalis (12th Grade): “It has the same taste as a regular burger – I could have been fooled, if you didn’t tell me it was vegan. I also like the fresh veggies. It’s a good sandwich over all.”
My Verdict: Although the patty was thin, the texture was spot on. The flavor was also smokey and had the distinctive sweet/saltiness of Teriyaki Sauce. To my surprise, the lettuce was fresh, green, and crisp, while the tomato was a nice bright red hue and full of flavor. This was a far cry from the limp iceberg lettuce and pale tomatoes my high school used to serve. However, it didn’t ‘Wow’ me – there is room for improvement, perhaps a vegan sauce for the bread, or a thicker meatier patty?
Portion Size: +1
Wow Factor: —
Total Score = 4 / 5 (B+)
Laura (12th Grade): “I didn’t even know you can make bean tamales!? The texture is off, but the flavor is okay. This is my least favorite item.”
José (10th Grade): “I did NOT like this. The texture is just too mushy, and it’s bland. This one is my least favorite as well.”
Odalis (12th Grade): “The masa actually tasted authentic to me. It’s like a healthier version of what my family would make, but with beans instead of meat.”
My Verdict: The masa was moist and the beans were actually well seasoned. However I can understand why this is the least popular item – it all comes down to texture. A few bites into the tamale, and the masa and bean became pasty in my mouth. I actually had to grab some hot sauce to add some contrast and help wash things down. I understand that costs and logistics plays a big part of what ultimately gets put onto the menu, but I feel like a heartier filling such as textured soy protein, or even mixed vegetables, would give this tamale a better mouth feel and act as a vehicle for more seasonings/sauces.
Portion Size: —
Wow Factor: —
Total Score = 2 / 5 (D-)
BEAN CHILI w/ CORN CHIPS
Laura (12th Grade): “This one is my favorite! It’s just overall, a very good meal. Like that you can’t tell that it’s vegan, because the beans are so flavorful that you actually don’t even miss the meat at all. The chips are also a nice touch.”
José (10th Grade): “I like this meal because it has a variety of different beans. It reminds me of something my mom would make. And I really like the sauce. I like how they’ve added tomatoes to the sauce and made it smokey.”
Odalis (12th Grade): “This is also my favorite. It tastes like Frijoles Charros, but a cleaner version and something that my family would actually make at home. This is something I would definitely come to the cafeteria and get over and over again.”
My Verdict: I knew this one would be a winner, based on how all three students perked up and couldn’t stop smiling as the tray was brought out. Short of high-fives, my panel of students looked stoked and even told me before eating the chili that it was their favorite. After I had my first bite, I could see why. The hearty bean chili was chock full of flavor. It had a distinct smokiness, that had the right balance of onion, garlic, spice, and tomato flavor, and was warm and comforting. I agree that this chili tasted homemade and didn’t miss the meat at all. The chips were a nice compliment to the chili, but it was honestly so good that I didn’t think it needed anything else. It was nearly perfect the way it was.
Portion Size: +1
Wow Factor: +1
Total Score = 5 / 5 (A+)
To gauge how the vegan items affected the students outlook and attitude on plant based foods, I asked a few questions and here are the results:
Have you ever had vegan food before?
José: No, I never had vegan food before. I didn’t even know about vegan food, and where it was sold. I didn’t know any vegans, and didn’t know what vegan food was all about until they brought these foods to the menu.
Now that you’ve had vegan food at school, would you try it again outside of school?
Laura: Yeah, for sure. I would be open to going to a vegan restaurant to try other vegan things. I would also try more different cuisines and food from different cultures now, because at first I was skeptical about vegan food but now I actually like it.
Have you ever had Tofu? Would you eat it?
Odalis: I’ve never had it but I would try it. The soy burgers are really good, so I would be open to try tofu at least once.
How has trying the new vegan items at school changes your perspective on vegan food?
Laura: I used to think that vegan and vegetarian food was all veggies and very bland. Now that I’ve tried vegan food, I know that there are a lot of options, and I actually like eating them.
José: Before, I wouldn’t have tried vegan food because I really like meat. After eating the vegan food at school I think that it really doesn’t taste all that different, and I like the vegan burgers because you can’t tell they’re any different.
Odalis: I usually eat really healthy as it is, but I like this food because it’s better for me. I used to think that vegans had a very restricted diet, but now I know there’s not much difference. It’s basically the same.
At the end of the day, it’s clear to see that students are now more open minded and are even enjoying some of the LAUSD’s vegan lunch items. Although the pilot continues on until the end of November, before being voted on by the school board to be rolled out across the district, it’s safe to say that this program is already a success in terms of providing delicious plant based meals which are changing the minds and tastes of students one lunch period at a time.