By CHRISTINA HOAG, Associated Press - from the Silicon Valley Mercury News | http://bit.ly/z77vxQ
1/28/2012 12:35:12 PM PST :: LOS ANGELES — Students at Roosevelt High School have declared a food fight to win back peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Fed up with new, healthy cafeteria cuisine that features dishes like ancho chili chicken with yakosoba edamame and tortellini with butternut squash, they're petitioning the school district to return old favorites like PB&J and calzones to the lunch lineup.
"We, the students of Roosevelt High School, would like to be served food that we can enjoy eating, rather than the 'healthier' food that we just throw away," states the petition being circulated at the 3,200-student school located in a low income neighborhood just east of downtown Los Angeles.
School districts across the nation, including Los Angeles Unified, are revamping lunch trays to meet tighter federal nutrition standards designed to stem obesity, which affects about a third of children nationally. The U.S. Department of Agriculture this week announced new guidelines calling for milk to be skim or low-fat, grains to be whole, and double the amount of fruit and vegetables.
But as many parents can attest, getting kids to try new foods, especially ones that are good for them, can be a battle of wits and wills. Little kids tend to be less finicky than big kids, who look for that elusive factor of "coolness" in everything from fashion to French fries.
"Essentially, you're competing with McDonald's," said Susan Levin, director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, who works with school districts on their menus. "But it can be done."
The emphasis on nutrition is a major swing from the 1990s when some schools featured brand-name fast-food burgers and pizza for lunch and sold potato chips, cookies and sodas in vending machines.
With national attention turning to climbing rates of childhood diabetes and other weight-related ailments, many districts have now outlawed everything from trans fats to deep-frying. Some have even dispensed with chocolate milk because of the added sugar.
But districts have found that getting kids to change eating habits isn't easy, and involves both smarter menus and a dollop of marketing.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, which serves 650,000 meals a day, saw school lunch participation plunge by some 12 percent after unveiling the new dishes. Kids have gradually come around—participation is now down by only 5 percent as compared to last year.
Chicago Public Schools saw a 5 percent drop when it did a menu makeover last year.
High school students have some of the toughest palates to please.
The new menu has been a major gripe at meetings of student representatives from four Los Angeles high schools, said Sergio Duran, student president of Roosevelt's math and science magnet school. His unscientific homeroom survey found that 20 percent of students ate the lunch, but less than 1 percent liked it.
The district, which last year turned down British TV chief Jamie Oliver's offer to make over school lunches as part of a reality TV show, is now tweaking the lunch lineup, slashing flops like beef jambalaya and vegetable curry and improving others. Some dishes—vegetable tamales and manicotti—have proven hits. But chicken nuggets and corn dogs are gone for good.
"We're staying the course," vowed deputy food services director David Binkle.
Districts have taken a variety of approaches to get kids to eat healthier.
Some have had luck introducing changes gradually. Others have relied on cooking up more nutritious versions of staples, such as pizza with low-fat cheese on a whole wheat crust or all-beef hot dogs on whole wheat buns, while others employ "stealth health" tactics such as switching white rice to brown rice with no fanfare.
It's also about simple marketing ploys. "Even having a person behind the counter say, 'have you tried this?' works," said Jessica Donze Black, director of the Pew Trust's Kids' Healthful and Safe Foods Project.
Supermarket-style sampling is effective. In Broward County, Florida, the day after veggie burger samples were distributed in the cafeteria, they "sold like crazy," Levin said.
Jazzing up dishes with fun names like "broccoli blast" boosted selection by 27 percent, while placing healthier items like vegetables at the beginning of the lunch line increased pickup by 11 percent, according to Cornell University's Smarter Lunchrooms program. A convenient, well lit fruit bowl doubled the amount of fruit taken.
"Rearranging the lunch line is a very simple, low cost, no cost thing to do," said Brian Wansink, program co-director.
He advocated giving kids one popular item on the tray, such as a cookie or chocolate skim milk, as incentives for them to get the school lunch because the alternatives—not eating or eating snacks or even home-made lunches—are poor options.
"Three quarters of lunches from home are nutritionally worse," he said.
The San Diego Unified School District fashions lunches to fit teen habits.
A major reason why high school students don't eat the cafeteria lunch is because waiting in line takes up too much time.
"Lunch is No. 1 about socializing, and No. 2 about eating," said Gary Petill, food and nutrition director.
So the district takes the food to the kids, wheeling canopied carts into the courtyards. Dubbed "Sandy Coast Café" with a student-designed logo, the carts serve items such as barbecued chicken sandwiches on whole-wheat buns and a kung pao chicken bowl, dishes that don't need a tray.
The district posts menus on Twitter and Facebook.
Lavish salad bars have proven popular, even with elementary students, because kids love choice, Petill said.
LAUSD, the nation's second-largest school system where nearly 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, has a key obstacle many other districts do not. Most school kitchens are equipped to do little more than heat pre-cooked food, and don't have facilities to even offer salad bars.
The district, which has won awards for its emphasis on nutrition, contracts with suppliers who deliver the food, which is placed on cardboard trays and served. Unconsumed lunches are donated to local charities.
Some parents say it's frustrating meals aren't more appealing.
Mother Sally Pea said she's packing more lunches for her 10-year-old son this year.
"He just complains the food doesn't taste good," she said. "They serve chicken wings, which is ridiculous, and a lot of Mexican food."
Food services administrators were taken aback that so much of the new menu ended up in trash bins since dishes had been taste-tested by thousands of students and parents.
Although a recent lunch of barbecued chicken, salad, sliced apple and low-fat milk looked fine, kids said some foods just aren't well prepared or were tasteless. They were also wary of items they had never heard of, like quinoa salad.
Student leader Duran described what he thought was a spinach dish as "nasty. I couldn't tell what it was," while a piece of chicken was like a rock.
Students' confidence in the food was also undermined by the contractor's delivery truck, which bears a logo stating the food is suitable for prisons and schools, Duran noted with a grimace.
Duran is set to meet with food services administrators next month to present his petition and survey, and discuss ways to get more foods students like.
Food services director Dennis Barrett knows it's an uphill battle to win kids' stomachs, but he's convinced that with time, it will work.
"The campaign to get people to stop smoking didn't happen overnight," he said.