Wednesday, December 21, 2011

When Bad School Food Tarnishes Healthy School Food Who Wins?

The LA Times recently published an article describing resistance to healthier school food in the LAUSD. I wrote my honors thesis on the political and lobbying quagmire of school food and its consequences, and so I don't tend to enjoy news like this. Nevertheless, I recognize that it reflects the real challenge of shifting children towards healthier eating. Unfortunately, news stories like this are incomplete; like most news (rather than analysis) these articles look at a fraction of a phenomenon at a splinter of time. They don’t have the room or the incentive to conduct thorough research and deliver a nuanced conclusion. That’s the nature of the beast.

For all of that, child nutrition advocates still dismiss such pieces at the peril of resembling Vietnam-era generals who lived in a world where the news ignored victory in search of defeat. These articles want tension, and so they focus on the greatest controversy. No students are featured in the article who like the new food, but there must be a portion who appreciate the new options. We don’t learn the causes of the poor food preparation and storage that are responsible for many of the complaints. It could be that these are the first fresh foods being prepared in these schools after years of unpack-heat-and-serve meals--feeding thousands of students isn’t easy. School administrators who fit the tone of the article are quoted without any input from supportive principals or teachers.

Some of this is surely my defensiveness of healthier food; news shouldn't bend reality to be fair and balanced. But, I ask you, how many students in a district without healthy meals would respond favorably to questions about the food at their school? This article focuses on an enduring problem of school food--it often doesn’t taste good and is put together on a shoestring budget to satisfy nutrient quotas before it can focus on taste and presentation--but turns the larger problem into a dig at new healthier options.

Articles like this are inspired by some change in the environment. “School Food Tastes Bad, Yet Again” just doesn’t snag readers’ attention, it’s not news, it’s olds. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t address fundamental problems--low budgets, byzantine regulations and requirements, or our obesogenic food culture--and instead attacks a well-meaning effort to improve nutrition in public schools. Come to think of it, the critiques voiced by most students are about food preparation and best-by dates rather than complaining about too little fat and sugar.

I’m a defender of cafeterias, in part, due to my college experience. I had miserably unhealthy, unappetizing options through public elementary and middle schools as well as a private high school. At the University of Redlands , I found a really great cafeteria (catered by Bon Appetit), in which tasty food and helpful information gradually moved me towards a healthier diet. I didn’t understand students who bemoaned the cafeteria because the food we had to chose from was so much better than the vast majority of colleges and schools in the world.

The LA Times also took a bite out of Bon Appetit a few years ago in an article that follows the same pattern, in a profile of Low-Carbon Diet Day. Again, no positive student comments are included, and earnest facts about the high impact of foods we eat is coupled with populist rejection by football players and apathetic eaters alike. I remember Low-Carbon Diet Day as a treat during which fresh squeezed local juices were available, all the produce came fresh from local farms, and chefs created fun, tasty meals without violating a low-carbon threshold that gave meaning to the meal. It’s the contrast between my memory and the LA Times’ account that makes me skeptical of such articles.

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