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School Lunch Menus Getting Upgrades in Nutrition, Appeal

Cafeterias statewide are cutting back fatty food while trying to make healthful fare palatable.

September 01, 2003|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

Standing in line Friday to buy his usual lunchtime snack of Starbursts, Mentos and Sour Patch Kids, seventh-grader Harrison Peters was shocked to learn that his Agoura Hills middle school no longer sells candy. The 13-year-old took one look at the granola bars and fruit juices and walked away.

"I don't think it's fair," the Lindero Canyon Middle School student said. "Candy's the only good thing that's a snack."

The collective groan over the absence of candy at his campus is likely to be echoed throughout California this week as returning students face distinctly more nutritious lunches. But students on the hunt for a healthful lunch, while a minority at campuses visited last week, rejoiced at the changes on their cafeteria menus.

Once solely the domain of mystery meat, tired green beans and Tater Tots, cafeterias are offering such healthful alternatives as soy milk, turkey burgers and sushi. Revamped menus are in the works from San Diego to Sacramento as schools reexamine their role in students' health and the childhood obesity epidemic.

Nutrition experts correlate the tripling of teen obesity rates in the last 20 years with the wide availability of fatty foods, at school and elsewhere, and the raising of generations of "desk potatoes" -- kids focused on academics to the exclusion of physical activity. One in four California children is now overweight or obese and thus more susceptible to health problems such as diabetes and asthma.

And although obesity's causes are complex, health advocates are holding schools partly responsible for establishing sound eating habits.

Key to the challenge, educators say, is providing appetizing alternatives to the high-carbohydrate, high-fat foods that children like.

"We have an obligation to give these kids the nutrition that they need," said Sue Gilroy, food services director for San Diego County's Sweetwater Union High School District. "The challenge is to present that in a way that appeals to them."

Cafeterias know that dramatic changes will hurt sales, so many are tweaking offerings, such as baking instead of frying chicken nuggets and using partial skim-milk cheese for pizzas.

Several districts, including La Canada Flintridge and Folsom Cordova near Sacramento, have hired new food service directors to revamp their menus, as Gilroy did when she came to her district a year ago after two decades at San Diego Unified.

When she arrived, middle school students could buy glazed doughnuts every day, and a 5.5-ounce cheeseburger was on the menu at some schools. Many sandwiches were served on buttery croissants, and at some campuses, food was fried in lard.

"I was pretty floored," she said. "It was like stepping back in time 25 years."

Now, burritos have replaced deep-fried taquitos and chimichangas on Mexican food plates, and schools offer such snacks as fresh jicama and cucumber with lime and chile. Sandwiches are made on bagels, not croissants.

Starting this week at the district's 11 middle schools, no doughnuts will be sold. At all of its campuses, the district will sell turkey and chicken burgers along with rice bowls.

Much of the menu revamping is prompted by new laws.

A California bill banning soda sales in elementary, junior high and middle school campuses starting in July cleared the Legislature on Thursday and is headed for the governor's desk.

And by 2004, food sold at California's elementary and middle schools must meet more stringent nutritional requirements. On elementary campuses, for example, only milk, water and juice can be sold, and no more than 35% of snack calories can come from fat.

School districts are now turning to gimmicks and coy food presentation to promote nutrition.

Pasadena Unified, for example, plans to hold taste tests, international food festivals, rap contests about health and campus visits from a nutrition magician who performs tricks with healthful food.

At Riverside's Martin Luther King High School, fruit, vegetable sticks and salad appear at the front of the cafeteria line, and fries sit at the end -- when plates may be filled. In between, students will find less beef and more chicken. Except for those fries, food is baked.

Student reaction was mixed to the ploy of positioning healthful foods at the head of the line; some picked up salads, carrot sticks and nectarines. But most still waited to load their trays with fatty favorites such as potato chips and chocolate-chip cookies.

Sophomore Candyce Meeks, 15, picked up a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich on wheat bread, red grapes, bottled water and a cookie. "I need the nutrition for sports," said Candyce, who swims and plays water polo.

Candyce and her friends dismissed the prepared salads as unappetizing and boring. They want a salad bar.

"The ones here have cheese and eggs," Candyce said with disdain. "We should be able to choose what we want on our salads, so we can be healthier."

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