Healthy Lunches Leave Bitter Taste in Los Angeles Schools

Stroll through a cafeteria in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and what you find may surprise you: standard lunch fare replaced with quinoa salads, black bean burgers, vegetable curries, and fresh fruits. The menu, which America’s second-largest school district adopted this fall, has been widely applauded as a step in a healthier direction for a nation combating rising childhood obesity rates.

Students, however, aren’t buying it.

In the months since beef jambalaya and pad Thai booted pizza and chicken nuggets, district campuses have been reporting a slew of lunch-related issues. Picked-at food and unopened packages piling up in trashcans. A drop-off in lunch attendance. Complaints of stomach pains, headaches, and faintness. And even worse, reports The Los Angeles Times, a rise in the “underground market for chips, candy, fast-food burgers and other taboo fare.”

Van Nuys High School junior Iraides Renteria sums it up rather nicely: “We’re eating more junk food now than last year.”

Faced with this latest cafeteria drama, the LA Unified School District has now revised the lunch menu for the remaining half of the year. Hamburgers and pizza—the whole-grain, low-sodium, low-fat variety—are making a comeback, while more unpopular dishes, black-eyed pea salads, lentil cutlets and the like, have been tabled.

“We’re trying to put healthier foods in place and make food kids like, and that’s a challenge,” said food services deputy director David Binkle. “But we want to be responsive and listen and learn.”

The students, however, are telling a different story, citing poor food quality, not disinterest in healthier fare, as the problem.

From The Los Angeles Times:

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.

“It’s nasty, nasty,” said Andre, a member of InnerCity Struggle, an East L.A. nonprofit working to improve school lunch access and quality. “No matter how healthy it is, if it’s not appetizing, people won’t eat it.”

Other students have complained of undercooked meat and moldy noodles. Adding to the grievances, Renteria alleges that on one occasion, the food made her vomit. And at Roosevelt High School, 14-year-old Christian Campus likened the meals to “dog food.”

School principals have protested the “healthy” menu as well, noting an increase in “waste” and junk food “black markets.” Van Nuys principal Judith Vanderbok echoed students’ food quality complaints and said salads dated October 7th were served on October 17th.

Food services directors maintain that all food served is up to standard and have removed recommended date labels to “avoid misinterpretation.”

The LA Unified School District has won several awards for its steps in school lunch improvement, including a recent one from the US Department of Agriculture. In 2004, the district banned the sale of sodas and junk food, and in more recent years, has pushed to replace frozen and canned vegetables with fresh produce.

This fall’s food failure, say school lunch leaders in the district, is no omen that healthier programs will be unsuccessful. Rather, they view it as a small setback. With minor menu adjustments and tweaks along the way, the district plans to push along on its goal: bringing health back to the cafeteria.

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