From adding edamame and sushi and returning pizza to the school lunch menu after counting it as a “vegetable,” L.A. schools revamped their menus once again last week in hopes of providing students with healthier food choices.
New America Media and The California Endowment, which funds Boyle Heights Beat, hosted a press conference to announce the changes. A panel of L.A. Unified School District Food Services officials, the CEO of World Fit For Kids! and Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School students discussed the new breakfast and lunch menus, touting them as a model for schools around the nation.
The changes came in response to the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Care Act of 2010 which was strongly supported by President Barack Obama. The new standards went into effect July 1.
This initiative was the first change to the nutritional content of school meals in the last decade to 15 years, said David Binkle, interim director of LAUSD Food Services.
When schools first introduced healthier food like sushi and peas to the lunch menu, students were throwing the food away. After struggling to get students to eat and like the new selections, LAUSD decided to have students vote on the entrees they would like added to their menu.
Some of the new menu items voted in by high school students include vegetable lasagna, sub sandwiches, garden salads and, the most popular entree, the bean and rice bowl.
“I like the rice and bean bowl because I am a rice person,” said 17-year-old Karl Pascasio from Bravo Medical. “And the beans add flavor to it.”
Schools in L.A. are now required to provide five daily lunch-meal choices, in hopes that students have more options to choose from. The goal is to prevent students from leaving school unfed. To ensure students have a nutritious and balanced meal, the menu must include meat or a meat alternative, fruit, vegetables, a grain or bread option and a dairy option, Binkle said.
Aside from the new lunch program, the schools also launched a healthy breakfast initiative, which will provide an in-classroom breakfast rather than just in the cafeteria. Currently 60 schools are part of the new project Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC), helping students start their morning with a full stomach. The program will be implemented at more schools in the upcoming school year.
“Before we implemented this breakfast program, we had 30 percent of our students consuming breakfast before school,” Binkle said. “Now that number is up to an average of 90 percent of students of those 60 schools currently participating in the new breakfast program. Teachers have said to us that students are now calmer, more focus ”¦ and attendance has gone up.”
Though schools throughout L.A. have suffered from dramatic education budget cuts, money to help upgrade their breakfast and lunch program comes from a separate budget provided by federal funds, Binkle said.
Even so, the challenge of getting kids to eat healthy food remains. In a story published earlier this year by a Boyle Heights Beat youth reporter, students were found hiding Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and sodas in their backpacks to sell to their peers once vending machines were banned from high school campuses. Students at the press conference revealed that they still see a black market in junk food at their school.
“Because healthy food is being served at the cafeteria, some kids still want the unhealthy foods, so then some students do sell chips to those who want it,” said Kristina Galstyan, a student at Bravo Medical.
The food services division understands the challenge they face in suddenly expecting students to make healthier eating choices, but division supervisor Victor Carranza said it is going to take educators, parents and food services all working together.