Well, this felt like a big cosmic joke. . . .
Over the weekend, I was pleased to share with TLT readers my opinion piece in the Sunday Houston Chronicle urging our district to put an end to outsourced, highly processed foods in favor of scratch-cooked school meals with more variety than just pizza, burgers and fried patties.
Then, a few hours later, I started seeing this LA Times story popping up on Twitter: “L.A. school’s healthful lunch menu panned by students.” The article details how the district’s new, more healthful school entrees are being spurned by many students:
For many students, L.A. Unified’s trailblazing introduction of healthful school lunches has been a flop. Earlier this year, the district got rid of chocolate and strawberry milk, chicken nuggets, corn dogs, nachos and other food high in fat, sugar and sodium. Instead, district chefs concocted such healthful alternatives as vegetarian curries and tamales, quinoa salads and pad Thai noodles.
There’s just one problem: Many of the meals are being rejected en masse. Participation in the school lunch program has dropped by thousands of students. Principals report massive waste, with unopened milk cartons and uneaten entrees being thrown away. Students are ditching lunch, and some say they’re suffering from headaches, stomach pains and even anemia. At many campuses, an underground market for chips, candy, fast-food burgers and other taboo fare is thriving.
At first the LA Times story seemed to be a dispiriting, real-world rebuttal to everything I’d just proposed in the Houston Chronicle. But after a closer reading of the LA Times piece, I’m not quite ready to throw up my hands in defeat.
First of all, it sounds like LAUSD has a serious quality control problem when it comes to school food, at least on some of its campuses.
Andre Jahchan, a 16-year-old sophomore at Esteban Torres High School, said the food was “super good” at the summer tasting at L.A. Unified’s central kitchen. But on campus, he said, the chicken pozole was watery, the vegetable tamale was burned and hard, and noodles were soggy. . . .
In class recently, students complained about mold on noodles, undercooked meat and hard rice.
In a districts which use a central kitchen (like LAUSD and my own HISD), ensuring that food is properly reheated and assembled at hundreds of satellite schools is a real challenge that I’ve written about before (“Many a Slip Twixt Kitchen and School.”) And unappetizing, over- or undercooked food is of course going to be rejected by school kids, as it would be by anyone.
But quality control problems shouldn’t detract from the fact that in community-wide taste testing of the new food items at the central kitchen, over 300,000 comments were collected and 75% of them were positive. So, at least initially, there was hardly the en masse rejection of healthier fare indicated by the story’s eye-catching headline.
Moreover, even with the apparent f00d preparation problems, we’re told that about half of the new entrees, including salads and vegetarian tamales, are popular. In the context of a complete menu overhaul, especially one that seems to have gone into effect rather quickly, I’m not sure that’s such a bad result.
But let’s say LAUSD could magically work out all its quality control issues and improve its menu, yet the 5-6% drop in student participation reported in the article held steady. And let’s say some of these thousands of students who are no longer eating school food now eat more junk food than ever before, as the story reports. Or let’s say some of them really are getting headaches and anemia from skipping lunch altogether.
I know this might sound terribly callous, but I’m not sure I care. Because the hard truth is this: if we really intend to wean an entire generation of children off school food “carnival fare” (nachos, nuggets, burgers and fries) and introduce them to fresher, healthier entrees, we are, without question, going to lose some kids along the way. In other words, it’s just not that surprising if a middle- or high schooler who’s seen nothing but “better-for-you junk food” on his tray since kindergarten can’t make the leap to black bean burgers and salad, especially if there’s no context for healthier foods in his life outside of school.
But a kindergartener who’s never seen anything but black bean burgers and salads in the cafeteria is going to be a much easier sell on healthier foods throughout his school years. And that young child is our only hope if we’re going to reverse current trends in obesity and poor lifestyle habits among our nation’s children. So if our choice is to continue the dismal school food status quo because “that’s all kids will eat,” or knowingly lose some kids now to Flaming Hot Cheetos and Cokes with an eye toward those impressionable, incoming kindergarteners and all the classes that will follow them, I can live with sacrificing a few for the many.
Now don’t get me wrong. I not only want every child to have access to healthful school food, I want schools to do everything they can to encourage children to eat it. That might mean a slower menu roll-out than LAUSD attempted; it might mean more menu-testing and student input; it might mean using Brian Wansink’s consumer psychology to encourage better choices; and it most certainly means nutrition education at every possible juncture, from classroom lessons to school gardens to volunteer “food boosters” in the lunch room encouraging experimentation.
But as we take on the daunting task of changing children’s ingrained eating habits, habits that are reinforced in the media and sometimes at home, we need to be prepared for more attention-grabbing headlines like this one telling us that kids “just won’t eat” healthier school food.
Be that as it may, we need to keep our heads down and stay the course. Because, in the end, what other choice do we have?
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