South Pasadena High School has one lunch period in which it serves more than 500 students in roughly 20 minutes. The Tiger Express portion of the cafeteria could be getting a little extra attention from all those students this coming school year, with its menu makeover and bright, new look.
Jenifer Smith, director of food and nutrition services for South Pasadena Unified School District, has added scratch-made healthy foods to Tiger Express, an outdoor walk-up window that quickly provides meals for students.
“Our kids are so diverse that they have all these different flavor profiles,” Smith said. “They’ve had different things that they try at home and different things that they try out on their own. We’re bringing all of that here so whatever [food] station you go to, you can find something that you really want to eat.”
Foods that will appear on the Tiger Express menu appear on a mobile app. The choices include buffalo chicken pizza, a chicken Caesar wrap and scratch-made sandwiches. All students are required to choose a fruit or vegetable to pair with the meal.
The backdrop of Tiger Express and all its food options is a mural painted by SPHS students Hanniel Park, Jayel Bright, Eloise Wilson and Icarus Foerstner. Guests are greeted with vibrant hand-painted fruits and vegetables splashed across a black wall.
“It brightens up the area,” Wilson said. “You spend so much time at school, especially as you get older. When you’re in a place that much, you want it to be a place that looks nice and it makes you feel nice.”
The mural took about five weeks to complete. Some days were challenging for the artists as the project slowly evolved from salmon-colored blobs on the wall to fully formed produce.
“We had a couple of conversations and we were like, if this turns out bad, we are not putting our names on it,” Foerstner said with a laugh. “It ended up turning out really nice so I’m really happy.”
Park may see the mural more frequently than anyone else, since he works as a cashier at Tiger Express. He serves his fellow students for roughly 20 minutes, making sure each of them takes a fruit or vegetable to complete their meal, before getting to eat his own lunch.
He’s particularly happy about how the changes at Tiger Express could further expand the already plentiful options at the SPHS cafeteria.
“L.A. itself has a lot of different cultures, so targeting a lot of different cultural bases is good,” said Park, whose favorite cafeteria meal is tikka masala. “It’s so different from what we’re used to with standard American school lunches, which is basically just pizza at some point.”
Smith welcomes the return to made-from-scratch cooking after the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced cafeterias to shift to individually wrapped foods. The new Tiger Express menu’s options help create a cafeteria that’s inclusive of students with specific food needs, like vegetarians or those who have diabetes or an allergy.
Students also can choose to eat at two other food stations inside the cafeteria, which is getting a few upgrades over the summer as well. The cafeteria ensures students can get a healthy meal, especially the 14% to 17% of students who are food insecure.
“Knowing that I’m feeding those kids a good, nutritious meal… is super important to me,” Smith said. “We don’t want to miss those kids. We don’t want those kids to fall through the cracks.”
The cafeteria changes are made possible by Kitchen Infrastructure and Training Funds, which most recently distributed $600 million from the state’s general fund to the Department of Education as part of 2022’s Assembly Bill 185. South Pasadena Unified received $548,000.
“I was shocked when I found out how much money we got,” Smith said. “So I was super excited to be able to buy a lot of new things the staff needs and to be able to make these changes for our students, to make them feel more comfortable and to make our food more appetizing.”