L.A. Kids Reject Healthier School Food: My Thoughts

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.

What then?

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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  1. says

    Love your take on this article! I too was feeling discouraged at first read but of course, my brain started churning thinking about how this situation can be improved.

    I was surprised by some of the items that they are serving. It seems that LAUSD went from 0 to 60 in terms of “healthy foods.” There is no reason that “kid-foods” can’t be nutritious. There are many simple ways to prepare familiar menu items in a lighter, more nutrient dense way. This is something I witnessed that Ann Cooper has done effectively in Boulder, CO. And her model includes a central kitchen.

    The article does not address any element of nutrition education being implemented. Perhaps LA needs to be “veggiecated” hmmmm 😉

  2. says

    They might also look at partnering with the airlines, which (at least in First/Business Class) have shown some proficiency in handling the “re-heat on site” issue, while still delivering decent quality control. I wonder if Continental/United would be willing to “mentor” HISD Food Svcs staff in their kitchens?


  3. Melissa House says

    The kids at high schools in Pasadena Texas, all hate the processed fast foods the cafeteria sell. They wish the schools would offer meals like these in LA. Therefore, I believe LT Lady is right on this one. I wonder who put the spin on this LA article, maybe a processed company?

  4. says

    Bettina – it sounds so simple when you put it that way – “they have a quality control problem”. I speak from experience when I say that the challenge of scaling an entree from a tasting/concept phase to full scale production is incredibly difficult. In a concept phase, you likely have your best chefs working on it. The trick is getting your best chefs to standardize production and then appropriately train those who will be executing on a daily basis. One general rule is never go 0-to-60. You have to do small scale beta runs of larger batches than a sampling/tasting, but without moving over the whole enchilada.

    I also believe that society has a tendency to want to make schools accountable for changing the eating patterns of our kids. But are we really going to get adoption of black bean burgers with a side of quinoa in schools if the child continues to be fed highly-processed foods and fast foods outside of school as if it’s the norm? If a high school student has ready access to flamin’ hot cheetos and soda outside of school and see nothing wrong with eating like this, how can you convince them they should really try the lentils?

    • says

      Hey Justin – Excellent point and insight!

      I have to comment that while I agree with you that successfully serving healthy foods in schools is made much more difficult when there is no home/familial follow-through, I believe it is the responsibility of schools to serve nutritious meals because they are educational institutions. Learning does not stop at the cafeteria door.

      However, I just checked out your website and think that you most likely already agree with that. Fantastic work! Rock on, comrade!

      • says

        Thanks, Lisa! You’re right…I completely agree that schools should serve healthy, nutritious meals. The same can be said for hospitals. I spent a month around a hospital NICU, and I would always cringe when walking into the hospital cafeteria and seeing junk food everywhere.

        The bigger societal problem that I see is not that school food isn’t healthy, but rather that we’ve been conditioned to believe that the story of how healthy food is can be told by the numbers listed in the nutrition facts, regardless of what’s in it or where it comes from. This is how schools and commodity processors are able to serve food that “meets guidelines” – they first engineer it to meet the standards, and then find ways to make it resemble what our kids have been taught to regard as “food”.

      • says

        It would be helpful, possibly, if the schools had some mandatory courses in things like nutrition, cooking, checkbook balancing, etc. Sort of like the old “home ec” courses from when I was in school, but required for both boys and girls. I’m sure that would go against the “teach to the test” paradigm, but it might just help these kids be ready for what life is going to throw at them.


        • Kate says

          Ed…they still do have classes like that. Everyone in our school district takes a very introductory class like that. You can take more home ec type classes if you have room in your schedule, but many kids do not.

        • Melissa House says

          They have the food and nutrition courses, but it is an elective and due to cutbacks from the economy, these classes are getting cut. It is really sad where our priorities are for child education, when food is our health and future.

  5. Kate says

    I agree with Justin’s comments.

    I read the original article…it also talked about serving brown rice cutlets…what the heck are those.

    I like veggie curries and black bean burgers. I’m not sure that those necessarily have broad appeal, though. I don’t totally agree that a kid who doesn’t like those foods, means they aren’t eating healthy foods in general, or aren’t being served healthy foods at home.

  6. Juliet says

    According to the LA Times the lunch menu went straight from chocolate milk and chicken nuggets to curries, tamales, and Thai food. If you were taking Oreos from a young child, you wouldn’t try to replace their cookie request with a curry! Perhaps the menu should have been phased in with less spicy menu options such as chef salads, corn or bean soups, and light pasta dishes. Major dietary changes usually don’t happen overnight in adults, so why would we expect school children to accept them so quickly?

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      These comments are all very thought-provoking to me. Sometimes I take days to deliberate about a post and sometimes I get so riled up that I just rant and publish. This fell into the latter category and there are nuances I wish I’d touched on that many of you have pointed out here.

      I don’t know enough about the details of LAUSD’s roll-out to get into the nitty gritty, but I do sense that it happened very quickly and the changes were radical, and, as many of you have commented here, that just can’t be the right way to get kids on board. Especially when it sounds like the district doesn’t entirely have its act together it terms of quality control so that even a great idea is so poorly executed that no kid will taste it twice.

      Moreover, as a lot of you have noted and as this op-ed in the LA Times also discusses, this menu may just have been too “ethnic” and too ambitious, at least for an overnight roll-out. In other words, why not more soups and sandwiches and fewer curries and pad thais?

      And while I touched on the need for nutrition education, I wish I’d put it as well in my post as Michele Hays did above. Because she’s absolutely right that in a very real sense, school food is competing against relentlessly advertised junk food, and it just doesn’t stand a chance without a lot of powerful messaging behind it. The lone poster in the cafeteria touting the nutritional benefits of bok choy (see my rant about this) is just not going to cut it.

  7. says

    Right on, Bettina!

    I’ve never understood why SCHOOLS don’t accompany changes in the lunchroom with EDUCATIONAL campaigns. After all, technically, isn’t that what junk food purveyors do? (They call it advertising.)

    Why don’t we use the model that has worked for so many fast-food purveyors when introducing new foods? A month-long marketing blitz with pretty photos, followed by incessant chatter and buzz about the food and “do you want quinoa with that?” at the lunch line.

    Nobody, I mean NOBODY would eat cold, badly-prepared french fries purposely – but I’ve seen parents prying their kids’ fingers off McDonald’s red containers they scavenged from the floors of their cars. The power of marketing is very strong.

  8. says

    This is an opportunity to introduce kids to new, goof-tasting healthy foods. When they get hungry they will try it with an open mind. But food prepared well would certainly help – that is really worth doing. It’s a disservice to introduce kids to bad-tasting, healthy food – it’s a taste that will taint their choices for a lifetime.

  9. Miriam Heppell says

    We had a massive campaign in the Uk led by Chef Jamie Oliver which proved it was possible to cook healthy attractive meals which appealed to young people. For a while the fast food disappeared and government legislation ensured chips could only be offered once a week and food must be oven baked or steamed. Sadly the budgets allocated to school meals is now so inadequate cheap bulk buying of frozen and tinned food is the only option left and it is not popular with students.

  10. Maggie says

    I understand that the issue in LA involves quality issues as well as possibly acceptance issues.

    I note that comments include the thought that we shouldn’t go “zero to 60”, but past discussions have included the thought that we can’t keep “safe” items around either, because students will choose those over the new, healthful choices.

    What should be on those meet-them-halfway menus? (I did note Bettina’s comments about soups and sandwiches.) Of course, what is exotic to one student/family is everyday fare for another…

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Maggie – I don’t claim to have the answers to this. As you know, I’ve been the person saying all along, if you have pizza every day, then whatever more healthful entree you serve next to it is doomed to fail. Yet the overhaul in LAUSD seems to have been pretty radical and rolled out very quickly.

      I do think plain fare like sandwiches and soups might be an easier sell, although Wilma (TLT’s anonymous school food professional) once told me sandwiches are very unpopular where she works. I also think taking regional preferences into account is a good idea. Mexican and Tex-Mex is probably a better sell here in Houston ISD than it would be in, say, the Midwest. But mostly I worry that without a ton of advance selling and student education (which I admit up front is beyond the means of most schools in terms of time, money and personnel), any change from what kids are used to is going to be very hard. And that’s particularly true at the upper grade levels. For that reason, I would be OK focusing initial efforts at the elementary level — get ’em while they’re young — and moving on from there. What do you think?

  11. Maggie says

    There isn’t an easy answer, that’s for sure. I think that is something that frustrates me so much – there are so many valid ways to make positive changes – but many propose opposite methods…leads me to the point of muttering…”what do you want me to do”!?!

    (Bettina, not specifically “you”, but in the broad sense of the word.)

    I’m not sure that elementary age students are all the receptive to change or new items either. My totally unsupported & unscientific opinion is that they are very suspicious of any food they can’t clearly identify. Foods should be plain, and should not be mixed. And even if it is a fairly common food (say, sauce over pasta), if they have had a pasta sauce they didn’t like, they are not likely to take a chance on a different pasta sauce. Honestly, I’m not sure they even realize that one pasta sauce might be different than another.

    I agree 100% that if we (as a nation) honestly want schools to teach students what and how to eat (as opposed to just selling/providing food), we do need to invest money in the marketing and education you mention as well as the food itself.

  12. Angela says

    I agree! I agree! I agree! I know this is an older post, but wanted to comment. You are dead-on. I’m so tired of the excuse that kids won’t eat the new choices and therefore it will be wasted. Same excuse is used in “offer vs. serve” districts (like mine). Where kids as young as 1st grade don’t even get veggies and fruit on their if they don’t want it. HUH? Since when do kids that age get to decide to reject things that are good for them. They don’t get to tell the science teacher they reject science today. Anyway, as I mentioned in a comment on another post, this issue has been important to me for a long time. I’ve kept the story at the link below since 2004 and am sure LA could look to this district in Washington as an example of getting it right. I know, many people will groan when they see “organic” and while that would be ideal, I know it’s unrealistic. But the other message, the switch, seems to have worked.


  13. Angela says

    Ignore the typos in that last comment. I’m not that inept. I’m just so excited to find someone like minded who is blogging about these important issues and getting results that my fingers are moving faster than my brain!

  14. HighSchool Student says

    I have read all the comments below me and well I dont know if anybody here has any type of power to do this. But if someone who does and reads this im a student attending Esteban E. Torres highschool and well if their were to be a survey here if we eat the lunch im sure you would all be dissapointed on the results. I blame the decisions parents have made for the lunches. I’m gonna give my point of view on how I see this situation. Okay look i have tried some of the “healthy” lunches they provide and well I do enjoy the tamale with meat im guessing? But other than that the rest is disgusting. Its not heated right or its just poorly served. I have noticed this during lunch, whenever they serve “healthy” salads the line for lunch is very small but when they have spicy chicken wings the line is huge . Now as parents answer me this. why change the whole menu for all students? Why not make a section with healthy food and the other section with normal food they use to offer. Because if I were a parent and some other parent was making decisions on what my child gets served at school for lunch and I learned my child wasnt eating because of these poorly bad tasting lunches I would be upset. Because tell me this. Would you rather have kids being served healthy food but the kids just throwing them away? Because they do not enjoy being served this food. I rather have kids eating any kind of food instead of eating nothing at all am I right? But most of the parents care about just their kid. Not the rest of the kids . So thats why I think its best they make two lines one with the healthy food and the other with the old food . Tell your kid to choose the healthy line instead of the other since the other kids dont really matter (just like the article mentions up their) Like That All Kids Eat Instead Of Skipping Lunch .

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      HighSchool Student: I really appreciate this comment and am going to feature it in today’s post.

  15. LD says

    Finally! A voice of reason! I have been very frustrated by the reaction to this issue. I am very upset by the argument that kids aren’t eating the healthy stuff so go back to feeding them crap! (that happens to be slowly killing them!) I know a mom whose toddler always walked around with a bag of chips or snack cakes. When challenged, she always would reply that “it is all she will eat.” I mean really??? Of course that is all she will eat if it is all that is available. The TAIL IS WAGGING THE DOG! How many times have we heard that it takes putting a new food in front of a child at least 10 times before they will accept it. Yet we are ready to throw in the towel on these healthier lunch option at the first rejection by kids who don’t know what is good for them. When they have been fed this horrible preservative-laden-transfat-filled, greasy excuse for food for so long, what do we expect?? We are weak. The schools need to work on quality, but do not throw the baby out with the bathwater! I pack my kids lunches because they are disgusted by the school lunch options like “chicken rings (no, not “wings” but “rings” HUH?) or greasy pepperoni pizza.
    PS: I am a conservative, so this is not a red vs. blue issue and there are many of my conservative friends who feel the same. I’m sorry some of the talk show hosts make us sound like we all agree on this issue.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      LD: Thanks for this comment and for your support. And I appreciate your reminder that even though some try to politicize this issue, I shouldn’t make my own sweeping assumptions about which side of the spectrum is more likely to support healthier school food.


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