Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Cafeteria workers prepare lunches for school children at the Normandie Avenue Elementary School in South Central Los Angeles on December 2, 2010.
In August the Los Angeles School District did something drastic. They rolled out an entirely new school lunch menu. They stopped serving sugary drinks and high-fat, high-sodium foods like chicken nuggets and corn dogs in favor of healthier alternatives.
After extensive taste tests with parents and kids they created a menu featuring foods like quinoa, curry and pad thai. District chefs worked hard to make sure the menu was not only healthy, but also reflected the diversity of L.A, featuring tastes that would appeal to many of the different cultural palates in this area.
The new food is certainly a hit in some circles. The U.S Department of Agriculture and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have both given LAUSD awards for the effort. However, it’s not much of a hit where it counts: Students.
According to LAUSD Food Services Director Dennis Barrett the healthy menu has been a “disaster.” The district has lost about 6% its school lunch participants, and the ones that stayed are tossing their lunches straight into the trash. School principals say waste has been rampant and a black market of chips, cokes and candy has sprung up, even teachers are peddling high-fat wares. Students who gave the food a stamp of approval during the tasting process have backed off, saying the food is “nasty.”
So what happened? Does the food truly taste bad? Or are students just so used to eating poorly that it will take time for their palates to adjust? Should the district stick to their culinary guns? Was there a shift in quality when the district went from small batches for tasting to making 650,000 meals a day? At one school, salads 10 days past their expiration date were served to students. Is the district really committed to better quality?
David Binkle, Deputy Director of Food Services, Los Angeles Unified School District
Jennie Cook, Creator of Food For Lunch, an L.A. based group advocating for healthier school lunches