Written by: Holly Troupe
In the spring of 2011, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and his team marched into the LAUSD with the purpose of remodeling the school lunch program only to have his cameras publicly rebuffed. The district was revamping the menu on its own, representatives said, with the goal of exceeding the health standards set forth by the U.S.D.A. Eight months later, students unanimously reject the healthy alternatives, and huge quantities of the foods are being thrown out untouched.
Officials are startled by the reaction. Taste tests of the new menu items yielded mainly positive, even enthusiastic results. But according to Seth Nickinson, a member of the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation who attended the tasting, there were issues from the start. “One of my biggest frustrations was the packaging,” he wrote on the JamieOliver.com blog. “Everything from LAUSD comes pre-packaged with cellophane tops. Not only is it a constant reminder that LAUSD meals, produced in such high volume, aren’t ‘fresh,’ but it can be hard to see through the package.”
The un-fresh, pre-packaged nature of the meals was one of the students’ biggest complaints. Salads dated Oct. 7 were distributed Oct. 17, according to Van Nuys Highschool Principal Judith Vanderbok. In a letter-writing campaign to First Lady Michelle Obama, Van Nuys students spoke of undercooked meat, hard rice and finding mold on the food.
The unified disapproval of the lunches has also spurred a disheartening consequence: a junk-food black market. Teachers and other school officers have been selling candy, instant noodles and chips to hungry students. Van Nuys student Iraides Renteria subsists solely on Cheetos and sodas during the school day. “This is our daily lunch,” she said. “We’re eating more junk food now than last year.” “It’s like prohibition,” said Vanderbok.
The menu also may have proved to be too exotic for the tastes of the school children. Where lunches previously consisted of pizza, burgers and tater tots, the new fare is more worldly items like quinoa salad, black bean burgers, pad Thai and beef jambalaya. “It’s not going over well; I have a lot of waste,” Principal Scott Schmerelson of Johhny L. Cochran Jr. Middle School said. “They don’t want the weird things. They want down-home comfort food.”
The district announced this month that the school menu would be revised. Some of the items will remain—the salads and vegetable tamales—while others will be re-worked or eliminated. Foods more familiar to students would be brought back, like burgers and pizza, but with low-fat and whole grain ingredients. According to food services deputy director David Binkle, “We’re trying to put healthier foods in place and make food kids like, and that’s a challenge, but we want to be responsive and listen and learn.”