Students line up for lunch in the cafeteria at Van Nuys High School. Many… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)
As any parent could have told the tastemakers of Los Angeles Unified School District, it's a long road from pizza to black-bean burgers, from chicken nuggets to quinoa salad. Kids like pizza and nuggets; they tend to balk at that other stuff.
Unfortunately, the district forgot that when it radically changed its school lunches practically overnight to fare that was decidedly healthier but too exotic for many students — think Caribbean meatballs and pad Thai, in place of nachos and strawberry milk. Though some of the new meals have been a hit, too many end up in school trash cans.
L.A. Unified should be praised for taking student nutrition seriously. Even before it remodeled its meals, it was at the forefront of ensuring that all qualified students were signed up for free and reduced-price offerings. About 70% of the district's students qualify, which means they can't afford to bring meals from home.
The district put considerable effort into getting its giant food-dispensing operation to prepare 650,000 more complicated and healthful yet palatable meals each day. But that's a big challenge, and the results have been mixed. Some entrees that came out fresh and yummy during last summer's taste test, when they were prepared under ideal conditions, have unsurprisingly not survived the test of mass production. In some cases, they've been served more than a week after the ideal date. Many students are throwing out lunches they find inedible, a waste not only of food but of taxpayer dollars. And some bring snacks to tide them over, mostly in the form of cheap junk food: chips and sodas.
There are many ways to feed children nutritious meals without trying to make international gourmets of them, as the district is discovering halfway into the school year. Pizza can have whole-grain crust and less cheese plus salad on the side; chicken can be baked instead of processed and coated with batter; and there's nothing wrong with a selection of sandwiches and some soup. It's a fine idea to expand the food repertoires of children, with their notoriously fussy eating habits, but the district should have introduced new cuisine more gradually.
One of the biggest problems with cafeteria service, though, isn't in the kitchens. For well over a decade, the lines for school lunches have been so long in L.A.'s public schools that students spend most of lunchtime waiting for their turn instead of eating. A recent report from the Eastside advocacy group InnerCity Struggle says that 62% of students in that area's schools don't have time to finish their meals. Cooking the best food in town won't make much difference if the district can't cook up a way for students to get it.