Black bean burgers or Flamin’ Hot Cheetos?

Students are refusing to eat the new healthier lunches at Los Angeles schools, reports the LA Times. The black bean burgers, tostada salad and pears on the menu at Van Nuys High is “nasty, rotty stuff,” says Mayra Gutierrez, who lunches on Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and soda instead.

Earlier this year, the district got rid of chocolate and strawberry milk, chicken nuggets, corn dogs, nachos and other food high in fat, sugar and sodium. Instead, district chefs concocted such healthful alternatives as vegetarian curries and tamales, quinoa salads and pad Thai noodles.

. . . Participation in the school lunch program has dropped by thousands of students. Principals report massive waste, with unopened milk cartons and uneaten entrees being thrown away. Students are ditching lunch, and some say they’re suffering from headaches, stomach pains and even anemia. At many campuses, an underground market for chips, candy, fast-food burgers and other taboo fare is thriving.

With fewer students buying lunch, the district’s meal planners have decided to bring back hamburgers and pizza (whole-wheat crust, low-fat cheese, low-sodium sauce) and eliminate unpopular dishes. No more lentil and brown rice cutlets or quinoa and black-eyed pea salads.The new meals were tested and approved by students in the summer, notes Megan McArdle in The Atlantic.

Andre Jahchan, a 16-year-old sophomore at Esteban Torres High School, said the food was “super good” at the summer tasting at L.A. Unified’s central kitchen. But on campus, he said, the chicken pozole was watery, the vegetable tamale was burned and hard, and noodles were soggy.

“It’s nasty, nasty,” said Andre, a member of InnerCity Struggle, an East L.A. nonprofit working to improve school lunch access and quality. “No matter how healthy it is, if it’s not appetizing, people won’t eat it.”

It’s a lesson from the universe, writes McArdle: Promising pilot programs don’t always scale up.

In the testing phase, when the program was small, they were probably working with a small group of schools which had been specially chosen to participate. They did not have a sprawling supply chain to manage. The kids and the workers knew they were being studied. And they were asking the kids which food they liked–a question which, social science researchers will tell you, is highly likely to elicit the answer that they liked something.

Furthermore, it’s easier to cook a palatable meal for a dozen testers than to cook mass amounts on a modest budget.

. . . the things that make us fat are, by and large, also the things that are palatable when mass-produced. Bleached grains and processed fats have a much longer shelf life than fresh produce, and can take a hell of a lot more handling. Salt and sugar are delicious, but they are also preservatives that, among other things, disguise the flavor of stale food.

In response to complaints that salads with an Oct. 7 “best served by” date were served on Oct. 17, a manager said lettuce wasn’t actually rotten. Then the district removed the dates because they were “confusing.”

Nobody eats 10-day old lettuce voluntarily, writes McArdle.  The old mentality — “don’t poison anybody” — may still dominate the cafeteria staff, she speculates. “There isn’t much difference between Chicken nuggets that won’t poison you, and Chicken nuggets at their absolute peak of freshness.  And the employees just sort of assumed that the same set of rules would work for lettuce.”

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  1. Ignernt person says:

    “There isn’t much difference between Chicken nuggets that won’t poison you, and Chicken nuggets at their absolute peak of freshness.”


  2. What they appear to have had was a competently run test kitchen and incompetently run cafeterias. (You want to see amazing school cafeterias, look to France.)

  3. Walter E Wallis says:

    They should have run a test cafeteria at one school. Check the garbage. That is where you find all the “good” food.

  4. Former Urban Teacher says:

    Getting sick because they refuse to eat what is probably perfectly fine (and most likely free or reduced in price) lunch?

    Sounds like a case of survival of the fittest to me.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Well, kids do get money here and there. I know that when I was in High School, we used to leave campus and split 2.99 large pizzas rather than eat the cafeteria food. (of course, the greasy pizza was cheaper, better tasting, AND more filling. )

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        Most kids aren’t allowed to leave high school campuses anymore for lunch, at least not in the district where I went to school.

        I don’t know how I would have gotten through high school without thirty-nine cent bean burritos from Taco Bell.

        With extra red sauce.

    • I do commit vegetarian outrages on my family from time to time, and I have tried out whole-wheat pastas, etc. Much of it can be tasty, BUT it is edible for a shorter period of time. It gets soggier faster, and the textures change overnight.

      In response to complaints that salads with an Oct. 7 “best served by” date were served on Oct. 17, a manager said lettuce wasn’t actually rotten. When lettuce stays in the fridge, leaves will go black. Someone has to pick out the overripe leaves, otherwise it won’t be appetizing, even if it won’t kill you.

      You can’t treat it as if it were processed, standard PBJ, or canned fruit cocktail.

      I don’t know why a choice between tunafish on rye or egg salad on wheat, with water or milk, wouldn’t suffice.

  5. I love our cafeteria staff, but I honestly wouldn’t touch any non-standard food that they fix, just as I won’t order the prime rib at the local diner.

  6. CaliforniaTeacher says:

    Some kids are also *used* to eating junk. Some of these foods may have been ill prepared, but I think some kids may need “palate retraining,” for lack of a better term, because they’ve become so used to junk food that real food is no longer desirable.

  7. Stacy in NJ says:

    They over think it. What’s wrong with sandwiches? Ham, turkey, cheese, tuna, PB&J. How about some soup? Fruit and veggies?

  8. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I haven’t seen an LAUSD lunch in like, 7 years (I used to do reading tutoring at a school).

    But when I saw them, they really looked like they were made by the lowest bidder: a bag of milk, a browning apple, some stale chips with a vaguely orange substance on it that I can only assume was supposed to be Nacho Cheese, and a bag of slightly mangy carrots.

    It was disgusting.

    Sandwiches are good, and relatively cheap. But I don’t think they’d be cheap enough.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      They should let Chipotle or Panera manage all cafeterias. Panera’s stock is over a hundred bucks a share right now; there’s a reason for that.

      • Deirdre Mundy says:

        But Panera’s not even CLOSE to cheap. If I take all my kids out to lunch there, it’s easily $40. Nasty cafeteria food for everyone (or McD’s dollar menu!) would be closer to 15…..

        We still go to Panera, because I’d rather have good restaurant food once in a while than crummy food more often. (And because it’s easier on kids with allergies because they’re clear about their ingredients. And because it actually fills my kids up, so if we’re out of the hour on a long day of errands, it reduces whining to zero.)

        BUT there’s no way to make it work for the schools. It’s too expensive.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          The half sandwich/half cup of soup/half salad deal (choose 2) at Panera is $7 here in Jersey. A plain burrito at Chipotle is $7. With a soda, it’s $8.50. I know this because they’re my sons’ favorite places to eat when we eat out. I wonder what the cost per student is at an average public school cafeteria – not just what the student pays (or the free lunch program pays on their behalf) but including the subsidy paid by the government for the whole program. I’m sure it’s not $7 a head, but I don’t doubt that the folks at Chipotle or Panera could come up with a cheaper yet still very good version of their food.

          • Mark Roulo says:

            Subway offers foot-long sandwiches for $5. When I eat out, I tend to get the 6″ sandwich.

            The “cold cut combo” sandwich has 370 calories for the 6″ version.

            If we order the $5 foot-long versions and cut them in half, we can feed the students lunch for $2.50 assuming 370 calories is enough for lunch.

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            I could be wrong about this, but I think the dollar-value available to pay for food for school lunches is almost exactly around the $2.50 level, so that would work.

            You could even cut them in thirds, and then supplement with milk and a piece of fruit.

          • Stacy in NJ says:


            Arnold’s Country Oat Bran bread is .32 per slice (x 2)
            Kraft American Cheese is .22 per slice
            Costco Black Forest Ham is .45 per slice
            It would be pennies for a smear of mustard or mayo

            One sandwich would be @ $1.35

            PB&J and grilled cheese would be even more economical.

            The Costco ham is thick and large. Arnold’s bread is thick and moist. The cheese is so-so.

            Add an apple and a container of milk and we’re around $2.50.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            It’s a good thing these ingredients jump together into sandwiches. It would really put a crimp in the business model if you had to pay someone to make them.

          • Deirdre Mundy says:

            Roger, please stop injecting REALITY into these discussions!

            Lets see… should we figure 30 seconds a sandwich? And minimum wage, but a school employee, so that means benefits, so let’s pretend it’s 10.00 an hour….

            So 120 sandwiches for 10 dollars –actually, labor costs would be less than a dime a sandwich. EXCEPT that employee isn’t really making sandwiches all day–there’s also unloading the truck, stocking the pantry, setting up supplies, cleaning up after, etc. So, lets say…. 80$ for 480 sandwiches… So 17 cents of every sandwich would be labor.

            We do have some odd sort of ‘cult of hot lunch.’ I had the same lunch (sandwich, drink, dessert) every school day from 1rst -10th grade (when I started eating my lunch on the bus as a second breakfast and going out to lunch… apparently growing teen+ sports = famished) My husband takes the same lunch (PBJ on WW bread, piece of fruit) to work every day. I’m not sure why we need to give kids a variety of lunches… well, except that they’re sort of like prisoners, and looking forward to pizza bread day may be the high point of the week….

            Maybe if schools were less like prisons, cafeteria lunch could be more like ‘brown bag lunch’

      • Our school, which actually offers burgers, chicken tenders, a salad bar, sandwiches, and an entree daily orders pizza for the kids every two weeks from a local pizzeria. I’ve talked to the lunch ladies about it and offering the pizza as the daily entree with fruit, a dessert, and a milk, its the same cost (to the school) as if they made pizza themselves.

  9. The kids aren’t going to eat the meals until you make them Red Hot Cheetos with a container of nacho sauce, a soda, and a Snickers.

  10. Michael,

    When I attended high school, it was permitted to go off campus for lunch (we got 30 mins for lunch), and we had two lunch periods. The food in the cafeteria wasn’t bad at all (I remember the cinnamon roll with white icing, and chocolate milk quite vividly).

    Then in the spring of 2002, a young girl who didn’t have a driver’s license wound up killing herself and a fellow passenger, along with serious injuries to three other persons in the car (they were driving at high speed trying to get back from off campus lunch). The fall of 2002 the district prohibited off-campus lunch for all students except 12th graders who were only taking four classes (at which time they were done for the day).

    When you get hungry enough, you’ll eat just about anything…

  11. Kids aren’t going to eat school lunches until they have to pay for it themselves. If you throw away free food, you’re not really hungry.