It's lunchtime at Van Nuys High School and students stream into the cafeteria to check out the day's fare: black bean burgers, tostada salad, fresh pears and other items on a new healthful menu introduced this year by the Los Angeles Unified School District.
But Iraides Renteria and Mayra Gutierrez don't even bother to line up. Iraides said the school food previously made her throw up, and Mayra calls it "nasty, rotty stuff." So what do they eat? The juniors pull three bags of Flamin' Hot Cheetos and soda from their backpacks.
"This is our daily lunch," Iraides says. "We're eating more junk food now than last year."
For many students, L.A. Unified's trailblazing introduction of healthful school lunches has been a flop. Earlier this year, the district got rid of chocolate and strawberry milk, chicken nuggets, corn dogs, nachos and other food high in fat, sugar and sodium. Instead, district chefs concocted such healthful alternatives as vegetarian curries and tamales, quinoa salads and pad Thai noodles.
There's just one problem: Many of the meals are being rejected en masse. Participation in the school lunch program has dropped by thousands of students. Principals report massive waste, with unopened milk cartons and uneaten entrees being thrown away. Students are ditching lunch, and some say they're suffering from headaches, stomach pains and even anemia. At many campuses, an underground market for chips, candy, fast-food burgers and other taboo fare is thriving.
Acknowledging the complaints, L.A. Unified's food services director, Dennis Barrett, announced this month that the menu would be revised. Hamburgers will be offered daily. Some of the more exotic dishes are out, including the beef jambalaya, vegetable curry, pad Thai, lentil and brown rice cutlets, and quinoa and black-eyed pea salads. And the Caribbean meatball sauce will be changed to the more familiar teriyaki flavor.
The district is even bringing back pizza — albeit with a whole wheat crust, low-fat cheese and low-sodium sauce, according to food services deputy director David Binkle.
"We're trying to put healthier foods in place and make food [that] kids like, and that's a challenge," Binkle said. "But we want to be responsive and listen and learn."
The new menu, introduced this fall, was hailed as a revolutionary step by the nation's second-largest school district to combat the growing epidemic of youth obesity, diabetes and other health problems. It was the latest healthful food initiative by the district, which banned sodas on campus in 2004, nixed the sale of junk food during the school day and called for more produce and less salt and fat to be served.
This year, L.A. Unified, which serves 650,000 meals daily, has received awards for improving its school lunches, including one last week from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and another from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
The new menus are in line with the federal government's updated dietary guidelines, which recommend, for instance, that fruits and vegetables make up half the plate. L.A. Unified has virtually eliminated canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, boosting spending on fresh produce from $2 million in 2006 to $20 million in 2010.
For months before introducing the new fare, the district held community taste tests and collected 300,000 comments — 75% of which were positive, Binkle said.
But Barrett said the debut was a "disaster." Participation plunged by more than 13%, he said. About two-fifths of the loss was tied to 99 schools that temporarily resumed requiring lunch tickets; typically, a drop-off is expected when this occurs. In the last month or so, the overall program has begun to recover; participation is down by about 5% or 6%, Barrett said.
Students have embraced about half of the new fare, according to Binkle; the salads and vegetarian tamales in particular have been popular.
But some students said they still are not eating — including those who liked the food at the taste tests.
Andre Jahchan, a 16-year-old sophomore at Esteban Torres High School, said the food was "super good" at the summer tasting at L.A. Unified's central kitchen. But on campus, he said, the chicken pozole was watery, the vegetable tamale was burned and hard, and noodles were soggy.
"It's nasty, nasty," said Andre, a member of InnerCity Struggle, an East L.A. nonprofit working to improve school lunch access and quality. "No matter how healthy it is, if it's not appetizing, people won't eat it."
At Van Nuys High School, complaints about the food were so widespread that Principal Judith Vanderbok wrote to Barrett with the plea: "Please help! Bring back better food!"
Among other complaints, Vanderbok said salads dated Oct. 7 were served Oct. 17. (Binkle said the dates indicate when the food is at its highest quality, not when it goes bad. They have been removed to avoid misinterpretation.) On campus, even adults — including a Junior ROTC officer and an art teacher — have been found selling black market candy, chips and instant noodles to hungry students, she said.
"I compare it to Prohibition," Vanderbok said.
Van Nuys history teacher Doug Kayne turned the discontent into a class assignment, asking his 11th-grade U.S. history students to write five letters about the food to the mayor, the media and First Lady Michelle Obama. In class recently, students complained about mold on noodles, undercooked meat and hard rice.
At Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, Frida Duarte, 16, said her burger was "pretty good" and her friends liked the hot chicken wings. The rest? "Like dog food," said Christian Campus, 14, adding that he and his football teammates eat the lunches only to sustain them through practice.
Even at Johnny L. Cochran Jr. Middle School in Los Angeles, where, according to Barrett, students reportedly loved the food, Principal Scott Schmerelson indicated dissatisfaction. He said students were rejecting the plain milk, jambalaya, Caribbean meatballs and other new dishes.
"It's not going over well; I have a lot of waste," Schmerelson said. "They don't want the weird things. They want down-home comfort food."
Binkle said the district will continue to make adjustments. But he added that a return to chocolate milk, nachos and deep-fried corn dogs wasn't likely.
"We're going to stay the course on healthy food," he said.