The LA Times recently reported that the public school cafeteria revamp the county worked so hard on for this year is a dead flop; kids are dumping whole trays of the healthier dishes they approved of in focus groups over the summer.
But there’s a catch: the dishes, which replace the concession-stand burgers-fries-pizza formula, were prepared well over the summer. The students say a lot of the stuff they’re being served now in the guise of “healthy” whole-grain salads and so on in the actual cafeterias is inedible: undercooked or burnt rice and other grains, undercooked meat, moldy bread, milk and other sealed cartons past their due dates, and so on. And when the students brought it to media attention, some of the cafeterias responded by removing the due dates.
The story was so eye-catching the New York Times picked it up last week to throw the issue to its own readers for comment. (Or you could say it regurgitated it–near the truth; the major newspapers seem to be following each other a little too closely these days. What is this, Reader’s Indigestion? what’s the nation coming to???)
The comments–well, as always for newspaper free-for-alls, they’re not generally on the ball. Most bashed the school board for being too liberal and trying to shove ethnic variety dishes like pad thai down the throats of poor kids trained on burgers and fries and pizzas. A lot of them were bemoaning the complete success of the fast food concessionaires in conditioning our kids not to like or even tolerate real food. A few–those who can read and think?– pointed out the spoiled or miscooked food problems mentioned in the LA Times but not in the NY Times digest version.
They all seem to have missed the most serious point, though: the school district may have retooled the menus, but they haven’t restored proper working kitchens to the school cafeterias. There’s no proper cooking facility behind that wall–certainly not for a thousand or so kids in each school. A lot of the new dishes are still being prepared offsite, just as the pizzas and burgers and fries were. Those prepared onsite are handled by staff used to doing nothing more complicated than heating up a bunch of frozen boxes from a concession company using minimal “kitchen” facilities.
The fault in the LA Unified School District healthy food menu plan lies partly in its complexity and partly in its execution. Upscale restaurant-style dishes might not be the best way to go for a first run at better food, and not just because they might repel students used to commercial stodge. They’re a bad starting choice because they’re more complex than the minimally experienced and underequipped cafeteria workers can handle on site, and the facilities that produce them clearly haven’t got their protocols down for “quinoa salads for 1000”.
The freshness factor is another problem. With “just reheat” trays of frozen pizzas, burgers and fries, no one has to think about sell-by dates. Heck, the sodium level is so high they probably don’t even need to freeze the meals. We’ve all seen the blog post where the woman let a Happy Meal sit on one of her shelves for an entire year…and nothing appeared to have changed in all that time. Real food with expiration dates? The school cafeterias are now out of their depth.
But by the same token, the schools shouldn’t have to throw in the towel so easily and go back to pizza, burgers and fries.
What would have been easier to get right–better balanced, and with better buy-in from the students–might have been “build your own” sandwich and/or salad bars.
You see the complicated versions at any Whole Foods or Souplantation. But pick one theme per day–brown-bag sandwiches, Italian subs or hoagies, felafel and pita, soft tacos… Offer two or three nutritious and fairly familiar choices for protein fillings, one of them vegetarian. Two or three raw, fresh vegetables as accompaniment and a choice of sauces or toppings, and fairly simple bread. Then you’ve got the makings of something students can deal with and find appetizing as well as nutritious, but without a lot of complicated prep.
You don’t have to provide a zillion choices for lunch every day. You don’t have to salt or bread the dickens out of the fillings, and you don’t have to provide sweetened, oversalted sauces for them. Fewer ingredients and processes are better. Just make sure the food is fresh.
I wish to god the school cafeterias and the board members who debate what they serve would stop trying to imitate the chain restaurants or the upscale restaurants–or indeed any restaurants. It’s lunch, not a field trip downtown to the California Science Center, where the brand-name burger chain running its concession stand/cafeteria sends the smell of frying grease wafting up to every one of the exhibits to make sure you know what you’re really supposed to be paying attention to.
Why don’t school cafeterias do regular sandwiches anymore?