Food revolutionist Jamie Oliver may be grinning about butternut squash and edamame popping up on school lunch trays, but new healthy lunch items aren't a crowd pleaser at Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). In a low-income neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles, students at Roosevelt High School are circulating a petition to request a return to the food they liked.
"We, the students of Roosevelt High School, would like to be served food that we can enjoy eating, rather than the 'healthier' food that we just throw away," the petition reads.
The sentiment isn't exaggerated. LAUSD, which serves 650,000 meals every day, saw a 12 percent drop in lunch participation when it first swapped quinoa and greens for corn dogs and chicken nuggets. (The percentage is now closer to a 5 percent drop.)
School lunches have been at the center of the food revolution for some time now. Oliver made LAUSD's lousy lunches a very public matter when he met resistance in revamping district's menu on his reality show, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution.
At the grassroots level, Ms. Q, a schoolteacher famous for her blog, Fed Up With Lunch, surreptitiously documented the unworthy edibles in her own school in Chicago for a year, gaining enough attention to eventually reveal her identity and publish a book. Her blog received thousands of hits daily, and Mark Bittman and Marion Nestle praised her efforts.
Though schools have slowly been making changes, all the buzz finally gathered some steam when the USDA announced new guidelines last week, calling for skim milk, whole grains, and more fruits and veggies. Advocates hope changing menus will mean slimmer students.
But as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink.
"Essentially, you're competing with McDonald's," Susan Levin, director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, told the Associated Press.
Kids are digging in their heels, and schools across the country have had to get inventive—and sometimes downright strategic. The San Diego Unified School District has taken to Twitter and Facebook to announce healthy menu options. The district also wheels food carts out to courtyards to encourage students to eat while they socialize.
Other schools have tried frontloading fruits and veggies in the lunch line, displaying produce attractively, giving healthy dishes fun names, and making subtle changes, like switching to whole grains, without a big to-do. Some schools have resorted to test-running new items by offering samples the day before the item is scheduled to be served.
In the end, it's a battle of wills for schools to fill up students—not garbage cans—on their new heart-healthy fare. Either kids adjust, or schools back down from an effort that's been a long time coming.
For his part, LAUSD food services director Dennis Barrett is prepared to hold strong. "The campaign to get people to stop smoking didn't happen overnight," he told the AP.