What Can We Learn From the LAUSD School Lunch Fiasco?

by Dana Woldow on January 9, 2012

school_lunches

The recent Los Angeles Times article revealing that LA Unified School District’s new healthier lunch menu was being rejected by many students generated a tidal wave of snark from those who believe schools shouldn’t be feeding hungry kids at all, let alone trying to offer them healthy food. The second-largest school district in the country, which serves about 650,000 meals per day to mostly low income students, has long been a leader in fighting junk food, with soda banned from LA schools in January 2004 and strict limits set on the sale of junk food in schools as of July 2004.

The new menu was rolled out to schools at the start of the 2011-12 school year, after passing many taste tests conducted with students. However, less than 4 months later, LAUSD has announced that half the new menu will be dumped and some traditional daily standbys such as pizza and hamburgers will be reintroduced.

It seemed like LAUSD was trying to do everything right: they spent over a year creating the new menu, developed a variety of new offerings drawn from the multitude of cultures represented by their students, taste tested it with kids, and promoted it heavily. How could it all have gone so wrong, and what lessons can be learned from the LA experience?

Lesson #1: Don’t Move Too Fast

Although changes to the school lunch menu had long been in the works, the changes were all implemented at the same time, at the start of the current school year. All of the old familiar favorites – chicken nuggets, corn dogs, pizza, flavored milk – disappeared, replaced by a new menu heavy on vegetables, legumes and whole grains. The Times article mentioned “beef jambalaya, vegetable curry, pad Thai, lentil and brown rice cutlets, and quinoa and black-eyed pea salads” as examples of entrees students rejected, which will be discontinued. Is it really so surprising that kids aren’t eager to jump in and embrace a new menu of unfamiliar tastes and textures?

What is surprising is that LAUSD would not have eased into the new choices, while still keeping some old familiar favorites for those students with less adventurous palates. Could it be that after TV chef Jamie Oliver held the district up to nationwide ridicule on his reality TV show last spring, district officials felt under pressure to completely change out the menu by the start of school this year?

It would probably have made the transition to healthier food easier if LAUSD had followed the advice of school food advocates who suggested “swapping out burgers in favor of sandwiches and offering pasta and soup rather than chicken nuggets.” Expecting kids used to conventional cafeteria fare to immediately embrace lentil and brown rice cutlets seems to be a bit unrealistic, and there are plenty of healthier options which are still kid-friendly.

Lesson #2: Taste Test Results Not Always Reliable

While it may seem that LAUSD did its due diligence by taste testing the new lunch choices with students and, according to the LA Times, collecting more than 300,000 comments before finalizing the menu, still thousands of students dropped out of the meal program because they didn’t like the new food.

Unfortunately, as Megan McArdle explains in an article in The Atlantic called “Why Pilot Projects Fail”, taste test results are often unreliable. A dish freshly prepared for a group of 50 is likely to be of far higher quality than the same dish prepared for hundreds of thousands. Asking students what they like (which, the article explains, “is highly likely to elicit the answer that they liked something”) does not necessarily result in their choosing to eat that item in the cafeteria when no one is watching.

LAUSD is not the only school district to be blindsided by taste test results. Annette Fuentes, writing in the Bay Citizen, tells of a student nutrition director in West Contra Costa (CA) who experienced a “bait and switch” at a taste test pulled by the manufacturer of a bean and cheese burrito. The tested burrito was fine, but the version which the manufacturer then shipped for the lunch program was inferior and had to be pulled from the menu.

In another article, Fuentes describes Jennifer LeBarre, student nutrition director of Oakland Unified School District, reporting that students liked a vegan stroganoff she offered in a taste test, but when it appeared in the cafeterias it was rejected.

Lesson #3: The Media Doesn’t Always Get it Right

The LA Times said Principals were observing “massive waste, with unopened milk cartons and uneaten entrees being thrown away,” as if this had never happened before, but every day, in schools all across the country, kids are throwing away lots of food, including nutritious lunches lovingly packed by doting parents.

The Times reported students saying they skipped lunch (and suffered from hunger as a result) because the new food was unappealing but they were saying that even before the switch to healthier food. In 2010, Grub Street Los Angeles spoke with students about school food; one said “Sometimes I don’t eat lunch, ’cause it looks like they’re serving vomit in a tray or dog food with rice.” Another reported: “It’s sad that you have to eat this gross food, yet you have no choice but starve or eat crap.”

The Times mentioned a “black market” in schools, with students and teachers selling snack food to kids who don’t like the new lunches, as if this were a new development, but according to this April 2011 article from LA Weekly, the black market existed under the old menu too. In other words, despite the fact that there may be waste, complaints and black market for junk food, all of these problems existed before the switch to healthy food, but one wouldn’t know that from reading the LA Times article.

Lesson #4: Fix All the Problems

There is little to be gained by introducing healthier choices if there are problems with meal production that remain unsolved. The LA Times reported “students complained about mold on noodles, undercooked meat and hard rice.” These issues speak to longstanding problems with the LAUSD food service which predate the current menu.

This LAUSD cafeteria customer satisfaction survey from 2005 shows 24% of responding students had been served moldy bread or hamburger buns, 23% had received overcooked meat, 22% got uncooked meat, and 19% got cold or frozen meat. A full 75% reported throwing food away. Clearly, even though the food now offered follows healthier recipes than previously, the production problems remain.

There is always going to be a drop in the number of students choosing school lunch when the menu changes. Ann Cooper experienced this in Berkeley when she swapped out their carnival food menu for healthier scratch cooking in 2005-06. When she eliminated nachos, the number of students eating school lunch dropped, so she brought them back but in a healthier form.

LAUSD is wise to stay the course with healthier food, but try to keep some improved versions of tried and true staples. The new menu was perhaps a bit too ambitious, but by keeping the new choices that the kids do like, providing more nutritious versions of their old favorites, addressing the longstanding production problems, and slowly introducing some additional new entrees, LAUSD can continue the leadership they have shown in the past in the school food arena.

Dana Woldow has been an advocate for better school food since 2002. She shares what she has learned at peachsf.org.

Contributor

Filed under: Archive