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A cake healthy enough for school breakfast

Photograph: Los Angeles United School District

An old-fashioned crumb cake has been a signature in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) since 1954—way before Senior Nutrition Specialist Ivy Marx came on board. “Back then, the USDA provided no nutrition guidelines for school food,” she says. The original recipe used white flour and refined sugar and was high in trans fats. The standard 6-ounce piece came in at a whopping 690 calories.

Once the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued school breakfast and lunch nutrition guidelines, the crumb cake no longer fit the criteria—even as a dessert. But it was such a crowd-pleaser and nostalgic favorite for thousands of former LAUSD students, the foodservice department couldn’t ditch it, Marx says. Instead, she revamped the recipe, changing up the sugar and fat proportions and swapping in whole-grain flour for white.

Labor is also an issue. “There were a lot more people working in the kitchen back in the ’50s, and the crumb cake was baked from scratch,” Marx says. Today, the district partners with a supplier that provides prebaked cakes, although some locations source from a vendor that offers a proprietary dry mix that can be prepped and baked on-premise, allowing the aroma to permeate the hallways and schoolyards.

Here's how the district reworked the recipe. 

Step 1

The current recipe includes 51% whole-wheat flour and provides 2 grams of fiber. Even though the USDA relaxed its whole-grain standards at the end of 2018, LAUSD is keeping the cake whole-grain rich in accordance with the government’s previous requirements, Marx says. A combination of brown sugar and cane sugar sweetens the recipe in place of refined white sugar, giving the cake a more natural spin and decreasing sugar content from 60 grams to 17 grams per serving.

Step 2

Trans-fat-free vegetable oil replaces the larger quantity of oil used previously, reducing the fat content from 25 grams to 9 grams per serving. “It’s enough fat to provide the right mouthfeel,” Marx says. “Plus the cinnamon and nutmeg make up for the change in fat and sugar by adding flavor and craveability.”

Step 3

The original cake used buttermilk, but “we’re more budget-conscious today and didn’t want an ingredient that couldn’t be cross-utilized,” Marx says. Dry milk powder is now incorporated into the mix, and water is added to make a batter. When the crumb cake was first introduced, it was menued as a dessert, but now it’s a breakfast item—and the No. 1 choice among students, Marx says. It’s served in a 3-ounce portion, coming in at 260 calories, and fruit and milk are on hand to round it out into a complete breakfast.

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