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Bravo to LAUSD

Some actual good news on the school lunch front appeared in the LA Times  yesterday:

L.A. Unified removes flavored milk from menu

The Los Angeles public school district, one of the largest in the nation, had to vote its bigger contracts for things like milk early, so they made the announcement yesterday. They’ve also announced they’re going to drop breaded, fried wastes of space like chicken nuggets and offer more vegetarian options, more farm-to-school contracts for actual fresh produce, all the good things we’ve been waiting decades to see again.

This is all in deep contrast with the frosty reception Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” show has received from actual LA schools in the past few months. And there’s a reason for it that you don’t have to dig too deep to get to. A lot of the fine upstanding revisions to the LAUSD school lunch menus and cafeteria revamps have not actually gone through for budget-crunch reasons. Some of the salad bars were never installed and implemented. As with many pieces of legislation, the intentions were good, or sounded good, but the money never showed up. Benefit: zero.

And a friend of ours who’s a school principal says the federal food subsidy program for poor students–there are an awful lot of them in his school, as in many of the LA area schools–is woefully underserving those kids. Some wouldn’t get a meal at all if they didn’t eat at school, and the food they get today is barely worth the name.

If the LAUSD can actually manage this year’s resolutions right, it’ll be a big step forward. The chocolate milk wars in the city board offices have been surprisingly intense–proponents of keeping the sugared chocolate and strawberry-flavored drinks argued that if they were pulled, most kids wouldn’t drink milk at all, 60 percent drink the flavored milks when available and that there’d be a big drop in milk consumption.

Proponents of going to plain (and Lactaid, and soy, to accommodate everyone, this is California after all) countered with the ugly fact that  the amount of sugar in the flavored milks puts them just about in the range of Coke, and argued that if fast food choices weren’t waved so constantly in the kids’ faces and the cafeterias offered real food instead, rather than alongside, the kids would eat more real food. And they’d get used to plain milk quickly enough.

I can attest to this phenomenon. We don’t keep fast food or junk food in the house, and I’ve been serving fresh vegetables and whole foods rather than prepared or processed things out of a box most of my adult life. I don’t get too many complaints, not only because my husband’s no cook, but because that’s what there is to eat and it’s the way we grew up eating at home.

Our daughter came along and started out with plain unsweetened yogurt, vegetables, bread and plain oatmeal or the lower-salt store brand versions of Cheerios. Also, for reasons that aren’t particularly clear even now, she had a thing for Indian food, spices and all. The maitre d’ at our favorite restaurant laughed when he saw this two-year-old kid tucking into a hot cauliflower dish and saag paneer. He remembered me coming in for a serious feast with my husband when I was very, very pregnant and hoping it would either induce labor or at least last me until I was in shape to come back. I’d never considered that she’d like to eat what I ate while pregnant–I’m still not sure it’s true, but I figure Indian families would have more experience with seeing how their kids develop a taste for vegetables and varied spices. Even now, she likes a wider variety of non-sweet flavors than her friends. I like to think it’s because she’s gotten to taste them, and because we like to experiment.

Part of the comparatively low-sugar diet for her was self defense–she was an up-like-the-rocket, down-like-the-stick kind of toddler if she ate many sweets at a time, even then. Years before, my sister’s older son had gotten stuck in a serious chocolate milk habit at that age, because my sister had given it first as a treat, then as a regular drink, then for comforting him or to appease temper tantrums, then to get him to do the things he should have been doing with or without milk. She had a hell of a time getting them both back out of the vicious cycle. I’m not as organized and can’t fool myself, so I took it as a warning.

My daughter got sweets occasionally, but mostly she was eating the kinds of foods we ate and now that she’s diabetic AND eleven at the same time (pity me!), I’m extremely grateful that she got the taste for nonsweet foods early in life. She only really wants junk foods if they’re right in front of her, or hungers out loud for what she knows are exaggeratedly high-carb items if her blood glucose is a bit high. When she’s in good shape, she goes for vegetables and fruits and cheese and nuts first, and kind of rolls her eyes at the over-the-top snacky food substitutes other kids bring to school for lunch. Even though she likes chips and cupcakes and muffins, when she’s in good range she doesn’t seem to envy those kids or resent eating a sandwich and an apple.

It’s the same thing dieticians notice about patients who drop the amount of carbohydrates they eat and go to real foods from processed: they aren’t as tempted by the big junk and big sweets when they’re in good shape and eating balanced meals. The low-carb-diet folks had a lot of things wrong, but that’s one thing they got right. Two years after my daughter was born, I was still overweight and decided to stop eating unlimited carbohydrates to make up for the lack of sleep (and just get more sleep). I cut down to one slice of bread for lunch (with other stuff, not just by itself), one measured serving of unsweetened cereal in the morning, and no starches at dinner for the first time since my pregnancy.

Within days–four days, to be exact, I realized I was no longer hungry all the time, thinking about food all the time, or eating it all the time. I found myself passing the checkout displays of candy bars without looking at them or feeling automatic twinges of desire. The Pavlov’s dog effect had disappeared that quickly, and it’s lasted most of the time since, even though I’m no longer that strict with myself. Not that I don’t love good bread, or sweets, because I do, but it scares me how quickly any of us can change our appetites with relatively small tweaks–bad or good. And it’s not just starches.

When fast food is the common choice at home, neither kids nor parents seem capable of turning it off and eating something real. They even become vegetable-phobic, and the parents automatically assert that their kids “won’t” eat vegetables, so they don’t serve them. But they’re not so different from us (some of them are our close friends, and what can we possibly say to them without being obnoxious? but it’s heartbreaking.) If they get to taste a wider variety of real foods as a regular thing, they start to prefer them.

At our daughter’s school, there’s no cafeteria, and most kids bring some processed stuff for lunch and kvetch about any vegetables they’re served at home. But the school garden is a whole different experience. They plant and pick the vegetables out for school salads and eat them happily. The kid with the biggest jones for candy in all forms nibbles on broccoli flowers and many of the kids snap fennel fronds to chew on as they pass the garden boxes between classes. If the after school program serves carrot sticks with a spoonful of ranch dressing as a snack, most kids go for it.

So I think the people who argue that kids won’t adapt to a decent diet and “won’t” drink plain milk or eat real vegetables without major disguises have the appetite thing exactly backwards. Whenever I find myself starting to hunger for sweets or eat automatic seconds at meals without feeling them, I have to think about it twice now, because I know I can’t be that different physiologically from my daughter–or my dad, who became diabetic in later life. Or from the kids in the LA County schools. We all have mostly the same genetically-hardwired appetite signal systems that change based on what we’re eating, and our appetites can actually tell us a bit about what’s going on inside. It’s just different from what we assumed.

If the public schools stop serving fast food in competition with real food, they may just see kids eat vegetables as a matter of course. It could change the kids’ assumed appetites pretty quickly. It would be better if the kids got to help make the vegetables, if they got to pick vegetables from a school garden, or even got to visit the farms that deliver the produce to their cafeterias. None of these things are completely unmanageable, even with public school budgets, and the kids might surprise the grownups who’ve made their own bad habit of grabbing a burger and fries and a Coke to gulp down without tasting so they can mark papers between classes.

In the end, the LAUSD board vote on milk was 5-2 for going plain, an encouraging majority for common sense that I didn’t entirely expect, and the contracts are being issued that way. So at least one positive change for school diets will be showing up in the fall. My bet is that within 3 months, most kids will be used to grabbing a regular milk with their meals and not still be whining about the loss of chocolate and strawberry.

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