I read an article in the Los Angeles Times last month about the amount of food that’s being wasted in the cafeterias of the Los Angeles Unified School District. It stated that the students are throwing away at least $100,000 worth of food a day. The waste was blamed on federal school rules put in place in 2012 that require each student to take three items on their lunch tray, including one fruit or vegetable, even if they don’t want them.
It made me wonder about the lunches served at my children’s school, Mountain Avenue Elementary. My kids have complained for a couple of years about the quality of food in the cafeteria. Neither of them gets lunch from the cafeteria any longer, choosing instead to bring a lunch box from home every day. This is a big change from when they were in kindergarten and first grade, when they happily purchased lunches every day and ate most, if not all, of what was on their tray.
That was before the USDA issued new standards in 2012 which, according to the Food Research and Action Center website “increased the amount of fruits and vegetables served, emphasizes whole grain¬ rich foods, requires only lower fat and nonfat milk, limits calories, and reduces saturated fat and sodium.”
I decided to see for myself what was being served at school, so last Friday I joined my kids for lunch. The first thing that struck me was the number of children who brought a lunch from home. Of one third grade class I observed, 26 out of 31 students had a lunch box, leaving only five kids who chose the school lunch.
This was really surprising to me, so I contacted Maria Panuco, R.D., the Nutrition Services supervisor for Glendale Unified School District, to ask how many of the 550 students at Mountain Avenue buy lunch. She said that on average 150 children purchase the cafeteria lunch. That’s only 27% who choose the school lunch.
Why is the number so small? Are the kids just being picky or does the food taste as bad as my kids say it does?
On Friday, there were three meal choices: a carton of yogurt with carrot coins, a turkey and cheese sandwich with carrot coins and, since it was a special barbecue day, either a turkey dog or hamburger, which also were served with the carrot coins.
I chose the turkey sandwich lunch with 1% milk. The sandwich comes prepackaged in a plastic bag and consists of a thin piece of turkey and a processed cheese slice on two pieces of wheat bread. While it was edible, it was pretty bland. The carrot coins were cold, hard and tasteless. My daughter observed one of her classmates leave the cafeteria line and, before even sitting down, got his fork and went directly to the trashcan where he pushed the carrots off his tray and into the garbage.
According to the Health e Meal Planner available through the GUSD website, the calorie count for my lunch was 373 calories, just 18.65% of the daily value for a 10-year-old. And that’s if they ate all of the lunch, which I saw few children do. That doesn’t seem like enough to keep an active child alert and engaged for the rest of the school day.
Can GUSD make the lunches tastier and still stay within the mandated guidelines? No one expects the meals to be worthy of a five star restaurant, but there must be a way to make them more kid-friendly.