California charter schools (food service issues)

At Larchmont Charter School in Los Angeles, a former restaurant chef whips up pasta with fresh vegetable sauce for lunch one day; on another he offers a salad bar with figs grown on campus.

But 500 miles north, in tiny Red Bluff, lunchtime at Sacramento River Discovery Charter School is decidedly different: Students must either bring their own lunches or place orders with parent volunteers who make a daily run to Taco Bell, Burger King or Subway.

Cafeteria food at traditional public schools has long had a bad reputation, but at least children can count on a meal that's free for needy families.

Mealtime is more complicated at the more than 900 publicly financed charter schools in California. Unlike traditional campuses that must follow state nutrition regulations for schools, charters can make independent decisions about what's for lunch. Some charter school officials decide not to serve it at all, even if that might mean that the nutrition needs of some of the state's poorest children are not being met…

Lunchtime on some charter campuses "indulges the students' worst impulses and obligates the parents to pay for meals that USDA is willing to fund," said Matthew Sharp, a senior advocate at California Food Policy Advocates.

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