Those who say there's nothing wrong with continuing to count pizza and french fries as vegetables in school lunches often argue that if you try to feed kids healthier foods they'll refuse to eat them. The Los Angeles Unified School District's revamped lunch program seems to prove that point. Students have been complaining about the healthier lunches that were introduced this semester, but it's unclear if the food being more nutritious is really the heart of the problem.
The L.A. Times reports that the district has received several awards for its new lunch program, which provides kids with meals that meet the government's dietary guidelines and include far more fresh vegetables than before. However, students aren't happy to see lunchtime staples like "chocolate and strawberry milk, chicken nuggets, corn dogs, nachos" replaced with "vegetarian curries and tamales, quinoa salads and pad Thai noodles." According to the paper, the school's efforts to subject kids to quinoa have led to pandemonium:
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.
Being offered a selection of nutritious meals is giving kids health problems and encouraging lawlessness! Won't someone think of the children, and their refusal to take in calories that don't come in the form of Cheez Doodles and Hostess CupCakes?
In response to comments that the food is "nasty, rotty stuf," and "like dog food," schools are now pulling some of the more "exotic" offerings, such as beef jambalaya, pad Thai, and vegetable curry. They'll be replaced by hamburgers and pizza made with whole wheat crust, low-fat cheese, and low-sodium sauce. Principal Scott Schmerelson of Johnny L. Cochran Jr. Middle School, says, "It's not going over well; I have a lot of waste ... They don't want the weird things. They want down-home comfort food." (Fun fact: Yes, the school is named after O.J. Simpson's lawyer.)
It may seem like the lesson here is that we shouldn't bother trying to give kids healthier foods because they simply won't eat them, but upon closer examination, the issue may be how schools are making lunch, not the food itself. While it seems pretty clear that a good deal of what L.A. Unified is serving up is barely edible, the Times reports that the kids actually liked the food during taste tests over the summer:
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 a class of 11th graders, kids complained about, "mold on noodles, undercooked meat and hard rice." In America jambalaya and pad Thai noodles may not be common in many cafeterias, but plenty of kids love these foods and eat them on a regular basis at home. It sounds like food that kids liked when it was well-prepared just isn't coming out well when made in batches that feed a few hundred kids. When "comfort foods" like mac and cheese and chicken nuggets come out burned or soggy, no one wants to eat them either. The district's food services deputy director David Binkle says they plan to stick to a nutritious menu, but want to "be responsive and listen and learn." It's unfortunate that the current offerings are reinforcing the idea that healthy food is gross, when the lesson here is really that any food can be nasty when it isn't prepared well.
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