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.

Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:BHS-Cafeteria.jpg

First-Ever Food Day Aims to Inspire Healthier Diets

The first-ever Food Day will be celebrated this Monday, October 24 as a national effort to eat better and be healthier. The event is supported by Slow Food USA, the Center for Science in the Public and other groups that advocate for consuming better food. The Food Day slogan, “It’s Time to Eat Real, America,” aims to inspire people not only to eat healthy, but to speak out in favor of healthy food.

Organizer and vegetarian food blogger Ellen Kanner said that Food Day is based on the concept behind Earth Day – that is, a movement meant to inspire real change and encourage people to take action to revise their dietary choices, not to simply raise awareness.

The Food Day website lists six objectives for the event, along with tips for how to achieve these goals:

– Combat dietary disease by promoting healthy foods, and stop food manufacturers from marketing junk food to children

Diet-related diseases like diabetes and obesity are becoming increasingly common, especially in children, with two-thirds of adults and one-third of children suffering from weight problems. Childhood obesity has tripled in the past 30 years, and affects children of all races and socioeconomic classes. Children grow up with cartoon icons persuading them to eat fatty, sugary and salty foods, rather than teaching them the benefits of eating fresh vegetables and whole grains. Though the sale of unhealthy foods to children has been limited through methods such as companies’ revision of marketing strategies and removal of soda from school vending machines, marketing aimed at kids can improve to promote healthy behaviors.

To add more healthy items to your diet, Food Day suggests eating more whole grains, skipping packaged foods and buying low-fat dairy products. Taking a step further, the government could ban trans fat-laden partially hydrogenated oils, found in items like peanut butter and snacks, and set tighter regulations on the sodium content of food.

– Ensure that healthy food is available to more people and that less people suffer from hunger

A healthy diet can negate or even reverse several health risks, including heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. However, 11 percent of the country’s population lives in areas designated as “food deserts”, regions without a grocery store within walking distance, and an estimated 50 million Americans struggle with hunger. These food deserts often have a high population of fast food restaurants, which deprive residents of access to healthy ingredients to create a balanced meal, and mislead them into thinking that eating out is cheaper than cooking. Statewide initiatives in states including California and New York, have provided successful ways for low-income Americans to gain affordable access to healthy food. Measures include providing incentives for inner-city convenience stores to offer healthy alternatives, helping grocery stores access fresh produce, and rewarding food stamps users with double points when they buy healthy items.

– Support sustainable farmers and agriculture and reduce subsidies given to large agricultural businesses, support fair wages and comfortable standards for agricultural workers, and revolutionize factory farms to protect animal welfare

Currently, the federal government provides farmers with monetary subsidies when their crops – mainly rice, soy, wheat, corn and cotton – are doing well. In other instances, money is driven away from the U.S. market by imported products. By shifting American consumers’ money to buy domestic products instead of imported food, the American economy would receive a boost. Food Day believes that some of this government money should be redirected to reward sustainable growers and fuel their small businesses.

Farm workers labor under harsh conditions, including working around harmful pesticides and chemicals. Federal protections for farm workers do not include overtime pay, minimum wages, or mandated breaks. Meat processors often work under high temperatures and with machinery and knives at a fast pace, sustaining a variety of injuries. Similarly, animals living in meat houses live under uncomfortable conditions, confined to battery cages or small pens. Government regulations should be improved for both livestock and food workers, ensuring increased safety and more humane conditions for people and animals alike.

To participate in the first-ever Food Day, go to foodday.org to see a listing of community events. If there are no events in your area, take small steps toward improving your diet for your benefit or for others’ – adopt a vegetarian diet full-time or part-time, buy organic produce, cook a meal from scratch instead of eating out, and stock up on whole grains in bulk. Food Day also has a petition on its website to make its goals visible and heard by Congress – sign the petition to join the cause!

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/tenerife/1452161601