To comply with state rules, the student-run Eagle's Nest Cafe was shut down to students at the start of this school year after more than a decade of operation, prompting dozens of juniors and seniors to cut class and protest all day last Friday.
Risking disciplinary action and threats that the school would call police, students demanded that the school reopen Eagle's Nest and allow them to sell their lobsters and steaks to other students. The cafe currently is only open to teachers.
The culinary arts program at Los Altos High is the district's only regional occupational program for cooking which helps place graduates in high-end restaurants or in schools like the Culinary Institute of America. Betty Ewing, who runs the program, was at a conference the day of the protest, but at a later interview said the cutback on the cafe has jeopardized the entire program.
Because of the cutback, she said, top students will no longer have the opportunity to travel to Las Vegas for a one-week externship cooking with professional chefs at the Mandalay Bay and the Venetian. And instead of cooking lobsters, crab and scallops as was done in the past, the students watched a film about cooking seafood this year.
"You can't taste a film," Ewing said.
"'We were starting to be recognized by the culinary academies. They were considering taking students from the school, they were also looking to strand with us and articulate with us, so our credits would continue to continue their education in hospitality," she said. But now, because the students are restricted from cooking, the quality of the program has deteriorated, she said.
The cafe used to bring in about $15,000 to $18,000 a year but that amount has been cut by a third, Ewing said. Although the cafe is open to faculty, teachers do not buy from it every day. As a result, the students simply cook less because Ewing does not want the food to go to waste, she said.
"The cafeteria is trying to stop everyone from selling because they're not making a profit," said culinary student Adrian Garcia, who has his eyes on pursuing a career in the culinary arts. "If we can't sell, in a few weeks we're just going to be reading from books," he said.
Ewing said the school's cafeteria has a sour mood and morale is low there.
According to Joe White, associate superintendent of business services, Los Altos High is being forced to shut down all alternative avenues of food sales as a result of a state "non-compete" rule that bans all forms of competitive food sales on campus.
Last year the school was audited, said White, and "The auditors specifically discussed competitive sales with my staff. Since we're in the federal free and reduced [school lunch] program, we must abide by the rules."
He added, "They didn't pinpoint Eagle's Nest Cafe, but they said there can be no competitive sales."
Ewing thinks the district has gone too far, to the detriment of the students.
"There's a law, but it's being stretched. ... If we really want to help our students we would let them do what they need to do to make it as successful as before," she said.
"We want them to know that we're serious about it," Garcia said about the cafe and cooking. "We do want to keep that class. That class has been fun for us."