SALAD BOWLS are among the most popular of the items added recently to the school lunch menu to encourage healthy eating. / Photo by Jonathan Olivares
Salad bowls are among the most popular of the items added recently to the school lunch menu to encourage healthy eating. / Photo by Jonathan Olivares

As the clock strikes 12, a loud RING sounds from the school bell at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights. It’s lunchtime””for many Los Angeles Unified School District Students ”“ the most anticipated time of the day.

While 660,000 LAUSD students, ranging in age from 5 to 18 years old, make their way to their cafeterias, there’s a new question on many of their minds: What’s on the menu today? Is it Beef Ricotta Lasagna, Chicken Pozole, or Ancho Chili Chicken with Yakisoba? These are just a few of the many new and culturally diverse dishes on the school lunch menu that LAUSD began serving last September.

LAUSD, the nation’s second largest school district, has become a leader in the movement to improve school food. This began with the 2004 decision to ban the sale of soda on school campuses. More recently, chocolate and strawberry milk have been removed from the menu.

The new, healthier menu, created by Mark M. Baida, head chef at LAUSD Food Services, has cut sodium, sugar, calories, and carbohydrates. The menu also includes more fresh vegetables and fruits.

No More Jambalaya
LAUSD’s new menu is winning national recognition for providing healthy options, but not everyone is happy with the changes. The mixed student response has forced the district to revise the new menu already. Items such as beef stew, jambalaya and Asian Pad Thai, among others, have already been removed from the menu because of their lack of popularity.

These healthy choices were replaced with beef burger sliders, pizza, and calzone– all foods from the old menu. (The food served to students can vary from school to school because of differences in kitchen equipment.)

“Most of the negative comments are from those who have not tried the food, and once they do, they’ll like it,” insists David Binkle, LAUSD’s deputy director of food services.

Gabriella Rios, a nutritional research manager for the University of Southern California’s Community Diabetes Initiative, has looked at the nutritional value of the food choices. She says, “All these dishes have the appropriate levels of nutrients with the vegetables, grains, and protein that our bodies need to stay in shape.”

Rios says the objections to the new menu are not that surprising, as students’ tastes are shaped by the communities in which they’ve grown up. Binkle agrees. “The biggest challenge is that these are new foods to students, and it will take time to incorporate,” he says.

Photo by Jonathan Olivares

Black Market Flamin’ Hot Cheetos
School trash cans often overflow with uneaten school lunches. When students dislike the food, they sometimes turn to the black market””food that students sell secretly at school. Both students and administrators say they have seen more students selling food at school. And crumpled junk food bags and wrappers are strewn all over school grounds, providing evidence of the problem.

Students usually sell less healthy foods, such as Hot Cheetos, tortas, burritos, and tamales.

Sixteen-year-old Yazmin Villapando, a Roosevelt junior, says, “I know that Hot Cheetos or tortas aren’t good for me, but I still eat them, because at least they’re better than the school food.”

Although students can face suspension if they are caught, no one at Roosevelt High has been suspended this year.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, 80 percent of students ”“ more than 500,000 ”“ qualify for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch. This means many students rely on school food for most of their nutrition.

Aura Valencia, a junior at Roosevelt, has never liked the school food. She says, “The food is burned or undercooked, so I don’t eat it. But then I’m so hungry, I can’t even concentrate in my classes.”

Some parents also have concerns about the quality of school food. Martha Rodriguez, mother of a 5th grader at Lorena Street Elementary, does not allow her daughter to eat it. “Some of the food that my daughter eats isn’t cooked properly,” she says. “I don’t let her eat it because she can get really sick, and I can’t afford taking her to the hospital.”

Laura Torres, a parent organizer for Inner City Struggle, a local community non-profit, says that the staff should be trained so that they can prepare meals properly. “Even if they have good food, overcooking or undercooking it is going to affect the way it comes out and”¦ the way kids receive it.”

National Recognition
Last year, LAUSD received the Golden Carrot award from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The award was created to recognize programs improving the healthfulness of school lunches. Many LAUSD schools also have been recognized as “Healthier U.S. Schools” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move Initiative.”

Even so, the challenge of getting kids to eat healthy food remains.

Binkle says, “The awards are important to validate what we are doing nationwide, but we still focus on our students and will keep working on the menus.”

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