Quinoa or Corn Dog: A Student's Dilemma

In Los Angeles, as well as other cities throughout the nation, schools are filling their cafeterias with healthy foods. Yet more than ever, students are turning to junk food at lunchtime. What's going wrong?

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Choosing Junk Food

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, a bold new experiment is taking place in school cafeterias. Unfortunately, it's not going well. Unhealthy choices like corn dogs, chocolate milk and nachos are gone. In their places are healthier options, such as black bean burgers, fresh fruit and quinoa salads.

Despite the abundance of fresh and healthful options, students are still eating junk food. In fact, they may be eating more junk food than ever before. Early numbers showed that participation in school lunches dropped over 13%. Instead of eating vegetable curry from the lunch line, the students are packing soda and Cheetos from home.

When they can't get the junk food at home, students turn to a blossoming black market. Candy, instant noodles and other unhealthy standbys are being sold by everyone from students to teachers in order to meet the demand. Meanwhile, the food the schools are preparing is going to waste. Students who try the new foods and don't like them are ditching them, which leads to wasted money for schools and stomach pains, headaches, focus problems and other health issues for students.

Good Intentions, Poor Execution

The menu changes in Los Angeles schools and elsewhere are certainly well-intentioned. The primary goal in replacing junk food with fresh food is to combat the rampant childhood obesity epidemic. By modeling healthy eating at school and exposing students to new food options, school administrators hope to help combat issues associated with weight problems that range from diabetes to low self-esteem.

In order to choose the food that Los Angeles schools would serve, the district conducted extensive taste tests. They collected 300,000 comments, the vast majority of which were positive. But the taste tested foods haven't been consistently reproduced in cafeterias.

Students who took part in the taste tests report that the quality has noticeably dropped since the testing phase. For example, noodles and rice are undercooked, chicken pozole is watery and tamales are burned. It got to the point where one teacher had frustrated students write letters to the mayor, media outlets and First Lady Michelle Obama, who has championed better food for kids.

Finding Common Ground

The root of the problem plaguing Los Angeles cafeterias may be that they tried to change things too much too quickly. Students have balked at the dramatic changes to lunch staples. Furthermore, their complaints about quality may be the result of cafeteria chefs being asked to throw out all they've known and master an entirely new menu.

Going forward, students in Los Angeles will see more familiar food returning to the lunchroom. The most exotic of the new options, including quinoa salads and lentil and brown rice cutlets, are out. Hamburgers and pizza are coming back. However, in an effort to keep improving students health, the new pizza will have a whole wheat crust and healthier cheese and sauce. These baby steps may not be a revolution in the students' diets, but they bridge the gap between healthier eating and options students will enjoy.

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