Fruit in the Taft High School cafeteria, Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011. (Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer)
- Schools aim for healthier lunches
- PDF: Before and after school lunch menus from the Health, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010
- PDF: USDA School Lunch Menu Draft for 2011 - healthier food for schoolchildren
Updated: 01/14/2011 01:05:37 AM PST - No more Tater Tots, chicken nuggets or even - gasp - ketchup.
These foods are among those that would be eliminated from school cafeteria menus nationwide under guidelines proposed Thursday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as it tries to reduce calories, fat, sodium and sugar from students' diets.
The revamped regulations also would add more fresh fruits and vegetables, marking the first time in 15 years that standards have been raised for the school meal program that feeds 32 million children everyday.
"The United States is facing an obesity epidemic and the crisis of poor diets threatens the future of our children - and our nation," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.
"With many children consuming as many as half their daily calories at school, strengthening nutritional standards is an important step in the Obama administration's effort to combat childhood obesity and improve the health and well-being of all our kids."
Officials at Los Angeles Unified say they're well on their way to meeting the recommendations, having launched efforts years ago to wean students from high-sugar, high-fat foods.
Since 2004, LAUSD officials have implemented policies that replaced greasy french fries with oven-baked sweet potato wedges and cookies with apples and bananas.
"LAUSD has been on the forefront of cafeteria food reform," said former school board member Marlene Canter, who tackled the district's nutrition program after she was elected in 2001.
According to the most recent statistics, 42percent of all school-age children in Los Angeles County are considered overweight or obese - 10percentage points higher than the national rate.
"When I learned we were paying millions of dollars to have soda in our schools I knew we had to change things," Canter said.
Los Angeles Unified was the first district in the nation to ban soda from its cafeterias - a rule that was later adopted statewide.
Chips and other junk food were the next to go, and new guidelines were enacted to limit calories, fat and sodium in breakfast, lunches and snacks provided by the schools.
Having done away with a lot of the foods youngsters crave, the district is now trying to introduce them to new options. Officials say next year's lunch menu will include such selections as pad Thai, Creole chickpea stew and Tandoori chicken.
"We're wanting this district to be a leader in nutritional standards ... We want to be the district that others try to emulate," said Dennis Barrett, LAUSD's director of food services.
The new school meal guidelines are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act signed last month by President Obama. The USDA is seeking public comment on the guidelines through April 13, and will formalize the regulations sometime after that.
While LAUSD has made progress in serving healthier fare, officials acknowledge they'll probably have to make additional changes.
The average sodium level of meals served by the district is 1,100 milligrams, more than half of the 2,300-milligram average in 2004, but still far above the recommended standard of 700.
Larger servings of fresh fruits and vegetables will also be required, which Barrett said will raise food costs for the district.
The new guidelines include an increase of 6cents per student meal. But serving a plate laden with fresh fruits, vegetables and proteins for less than $3 per student is a challenge.
Barrett said his department has been working over the last four years to cut costs elsewhere so it can reallocate more money for food.
Despite the district's efforts, many students say the district fails when it comes to meeting one critical standard: taste.
"I won't eat the food here ... It doesn't taste like real food - it tastes cheap," said Sasha Salomon, a 15-year-old freshman at Taft High School in Woodland Hills. "I think it's great if they make the meals heathier, but can they make them taste better too?"
A growing number of parents have also urged the district to go even further, offering more garden-friendly meals that are prepared fresh at individual schools.
Currently, most LAUSD meals are made at a central kitchen and then shipped to campuses to be assembled and reheated.
Picking at his ground-beef chalupa, Taft sophomore Jose Ramirez complained that his meal didn't taste "fresh."
"It's a little under-cooked," Ramirez said, setting aside his half-eaten plate of food.
Taft cafeteria manager Tiffany Monroy worried about striking the right balance between foods that are healthy and appealing, too.
"If we go too far kids are just going to stop eating the food here," Monroy said. "They'll just walk across the street to Jack-in-the-Box to grab a hamburger."
USDA wants your input
The USDA is seeking comment until April13 on the proposed nutritional guidelines for school meals. For more information, go to www.regulations.gov.