Teacher Resource: School Lunch And Teen Tastes

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Maya Escobar inspects a chicken-fried steak her cafeteria is serving for lunch.
Maya Escobar inspects a chicken-fried steak her cafeteria is serving for lunch.

School lunchrooms are sometimes called the biggest restaurant chain in America, and in districts across the country, there’s a push for healthier, locally sourced ingredients. Given the fact that childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years, revamping school lunch menus sounds like a really good idea. But in practice, improving school lunch is harder than it sounds.

The first issue is cost.  School lunch is bound by federal requirements and a strict budget. And local, sustainably grown ingredients often cost more than standard school lunch fare. Some districts have dealt with increased food prices by serving more vegetarian meals. Others have limited their special menus to just a few times a month, rather than every day.

The second issue is choice. In some school districts, healthier lunch options haven’t gone over so well. For example, In 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported that LA Unified School District, the second biggest in the country, launched a healthier food initiative. The district nixed chocolate and strawberry milk and foods high in fat and sodium, like chicken nuggets and corn dogs. Instead, they served healthier alternatives like vegetarian curries, tamales, and quinoa. While nutritionists praised the changes, local students were not so pleased. School lunch participation in the district dropped by the thousands, and school administrators said many students were simply throwing away their milk and entrees. In the end, the districts ended up cutting many of the new menu items and bringing back old student favorites, such as hamburgers and pizza (though reportedly swapping in whole wheat crusts).

This past month, LAUSD was one of fifteen districts across California to participate in a new initiative called “California Thursdays.” One day per week, schools in these districts will aim to serve local and, if possible, sustainable ingredients. The program is just getting started, but food service officials seem hopeful that it will be a boon — for local economies and local students alike.

In Oakland, one of the participating districts, 17-year-old  Ayana Edgerly is a fan. “The food is way better in the cafeteria on Thursdays,” she says.

Do Now

How can schools make lunches more appealing to teens? Are teens willing to eat healthier, locally-sourced school lunches? Why do you think some pushes for healthier and more environmentally sustainable school lunch have failed?

To respond to the Do Now, you can comment below or tweet your response. Be sure to begin your tweet with @KQEDEdspace and end it with #DoNowLunch


AUDIO:Making Lunch Local for California Kids (Youth Radio/Marketplace)

California public schools serve 560 million lunches a year. In a place that also grows a lot of this country’s food, it makes sense that California kids would eat California meals. That’s the idea behind a new school lunch plan that rolled out in late October called California Thursdays. Fifteen districts across the state have partnered with the program, including the biggest, like Los Angeles and San Diego. Youth Radio reporter Maya Escobar samples one of the new California Thursday recipes, and goes over the benefits and challenges involved in overhauling school lunch.


More Resources

VIDEO: California School District Rewrites Menu For School Lunch (PBS Newshour)

For children across the country, returning to school means eating mass-produced lunches. But Oakland, California, is implementing an ambitious plan to transform their lunch program to provide healthier, locally-sourced food. Jake Schoneker and his student journalists at Media Enterprise Alliance report the story as part of The PBS Student Reporting Labs Network.

VIDEO:Kids Create Parody Video To Protest School Lunch” (Time)

Written by an English teacher in Kansas and performed by high school students, this musical parody video protest of lower calorie school lunches went viral in 2012. The song, called “We are Hungry,” features lyrics such as: Give me some seconds/ I, I need to get some food today/ My friends are at the corner store/ Getting junk so they don’t waste away.

ARTICLE: Inside The New School Lunch (The Atlantic)

“The School Nutrition Association, the school food vendors’ lobby, says student participation in the school lunch program has plummeted, and that schools are reporting devastating declines in lunch revenue. Perhaps most importantly, studies found that kids, though forced to take the fruit in line, were throwing them away without taking a single bite. But not, apparently, in Lincoln, Nebraska. The Lincoln public school system has gone above and beyond the legal requirements, dishing out a daily vegetable smorgasbord.”

WEBSITE: Let’s Move!

Let’s Move! is an initiative, launched by First Lady Michelle Obama, “aimed at solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation, so that children born today will grow up healthier and able to pursue their dreams.”


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