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Most students give more healthful state school menus thumbs up

Public school students, by a 3-to-1 margin, say meals have become better tasting under California's new nutritional standards.

October 19, 2012|By Marisa Gerber, Los Angeles Times
  • These third-graders enjoy lunch at Julien School in Turlock, Calif. A survey finds that California students approve of the healthier school menus.
These third-graders enjoy lunch at Julien School in Turlock, Calif. A survey… (AP Photo/John Holland,…)

For every three California public school students who think school meals are yummier than usual, there's only one who thinks they're worse, according to a new poll released Wednesday.

The survey by the California Endowment, the state's largest healthcare foundation, was the first to tally the attitudes of California students and parents since new national nutrition standards took effect in July.

The changes by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, put into place partially to help curb childhood obesity, require schools to offer whole grains and low-fat milk and to cut back on sodium and saturated fat levels.

The results of the telephone and Internet survey show that Californians appreciate the health-conscious shift, said Judi Larsen, a program manager at the California Endowment.

"I have to be honest, we went in knowing the results could go either way," Larsen said. "We're definitely pleased."

Ana Lorenzo, a 19-year-old senior at Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, had to pause and think about whether she'd noticed a change in school meals this year.

She shook her head, sending a cascade of wavy, brown hair back and forth over her shoulders.

"It's kind of the same as it's always been," Lorenzo said, but added that it definitely hadn't gotten worse.

The new requirements didn't cause any sweeping changes in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which already had revamped its school menus to be healthier, said David Binkle, the district's interim director of food services.

"With some of this, we're way past where districts in California and the nation are," Binkle said.

Take, for example, sodium levels.

By 2014, each meal will have to come in at less than 1,400 milligrams of sodium — a bit more than a cube of chicken bouillon.

L.A. Unified's meals max out at 1,100 milligrams, Binkle said, and have for the last five years.

Sodium is down and participation is up. Binkle said more students are eating school lunches this year.

Zenobia Barlow, executive director of the Berkeley-based nonprofit Center for Ecoliteracy, which works on school food reform and sustainability, took comfort in Wednesday's results.

"I just want to say how thrilled we are," Barlow said. "We had that feeling, but it's really great to see it confirmed by polling."

Three weeks ago, Barlow's center held a California Food for California Kids conference where more than 200 school food officials from around the state gleaned advice from the Center for Ecoliteracy.

The main message: Make healthy renditions of students' favorites — pizza, pasta, rice, soup, salad and wraps — and play into the state's diverse food palates. The center suggests a Latin American flavor profile, for example.

But Amy Lopez, a 19-year-old Miguel Contreras Learning Complex graduate who volunteers at her former high school twice a week, said the meals could have used a bit of help.

"They would give us these weird tortillas with some cold sauce," Lopez said through a laugh.

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

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