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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