Los Angeles Gives Students More Control Over School Lunch

Many school districts nationwide have stepped up efforts to increase the nutritional value of the food they serve and reduce the consumption of foods that drive a growing childhood obesity epidemic. Los Angeles Unified School District has been at the forefront of this movement with other urban districts watching their successes and failures closely.

And for better or worse, LAUSD’s failures have received the most attention. As the district changed its menu to foods lower in fat, salt and calories, students were reluctant adopters. So reluctant, in fact, that they flat-out rejected many of the dishes served as unpalatable.

It wasn’t all bad news for LAUSD, though, and they’re looking to work out the kinks in their nutritional overhaul by building on successes and eliminating missteps.

In a resolution passed without opposition, board members directed the district to create a plan to incorporate nutrition education into the curriculum, give students more say in school meal planning and allow them at least 20 minutes to actually eat. Some students say they end up with as little as five minutes for meals because of long cafeteria lines.

This is widely considered a victory for LAUSD students, whose feedback — both positive and negative — will factor in to what they’ll eat throughout the school day.

Also important, and perhaps most important, is the district’s commitment to streamlining the cafeteria system so that students have time to eat. Even a meal with perfect nutritional value and rated highly on taste by students is rendered less appealing when it’s forced down in 5 minutes.

Student feedback on LAUSD food has been wonderfully clear and simple, which will help inform the district on menu changes going forward:

The changes have not always been popular. The turkey burgers are “nasty” and the Italian flatbread with marinara sauce “makes your breath disgusting,” said Keonta Johnson, a Mark Twain sixth-grader.

Just as a restaurant tweaks its menu to build on what sells and is received well while eliminating unwanted, poorly-rated dishes, LAUSD is engaging in the same process.

The district is surveying thousands of students, who so far have given a thumbs-up to about half the menu items — including fajitas and chicken teriyaki rice bowls — and rejected others such as the Italian flatbread.

As student tastes change, so will the menu — and if LAUSD continues to use student feedback to drive changes in its offerings, while still conforming to the guidelines set out by the USDA and anti-obesity initiatives, it should improve both nutrition and student satisfaction.

Not included in the proposal was an initiative such as that suggested by FoodFight, which would see teachers modeling healthy, responsible eating habits for their students.

Matthew Tabor

Matthew Tabor

Matthew is a prolific, independent voice in the national education debate. He is a tireless advocate for high academic standards from pre-K through graduate school, fiscal sense and personal responsibility. He values parents’ and families’ rights and believes in accountability for teachers, administrators, politicians and all taxpayer-funded education entities. With a unique background that includes work in higher education, executive recruiting, professional sport and government, Matthew has consulted on new media and communication strategies for a broad range of clients. He writes the blog “Education for the Aughts” at www.matthewktabor.com , has contributed to National Journal’s ‘Expert’ blog for Education , and interacts with the education community on Twitter and Google+.
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