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District officials argue that their meals are nutritional and, according to taste tests by students, appetizing. Sitting at a conference table on the 28th floor of LAUSD headquarters downtown, Food Services Director Dennis Barrett bristles at the idea that lunches aren't healthy. "Maybe somebody didn't heat it all the way through," he concedes. "But the nutritional content? We'll stand behind it 100 percent."
As required by federal law, L.A. Unified's meals do provide the recommended dietary allowances for specific nutrients: vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, and so on. The meals also comply with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's dietary guidelines, although not the current guidelines, issued last year. Instead, the district is following 2005 guidelines.
Yet the issue isn't as simple as meeting those minimums. Doing so does not ensure that food is healthy overall. Indeed, LAUSD's current menu is schizophrenic. The beef corn dog might be prim and proper with 6.2 grams of added sugar, but the orange chicken bowl with brown rice clocks in at a hefty 31.5 grams of sugar, almost as much as a can of Coca-Cola.
Moreover, the district does not cap overall sugar content. High sugar consumption, we now know, is correlated with obesity. The World Health Organization says no more than 10 percent of the day's calories should come from sugar; that means 50 grams total for a 2,000-calorie diet.
The wide variety in menu selections means LAUSD kids can easily select à la carte meals that blast past most definitions of healthy eating, assembling meals high in sugar and sodium without realizing it.
For instance, the coffee cake, a student breakfast favorite, packs 36 grams of added sugar. (Food Services' Binkle says, "We were practically lynched when we tried to take it off the menu.") Add in 29 grams of sugar from fruit punch, and kids are sucking down 65 grams of sugar in a single meal.
It's a similar grim tale with sodium. Six years ago, the USDA dietary guidelines advised a maximum 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, averaged over a week. The agency has since cut the limit to 1,500 mg a day.
Here's how that applies in LAUSD. Over the course of five recent days, students at Los Angeles High School were given menu offerings of an orange chicken bowl (1,120 mg), followed the next day by a cheese sandwich with chicken noodle soup (2,226 mg), then by meat and cheese sauce (1,217 mg), then a deli turkey sub (958 mg) and, finally, a kung pao chicken bowl (602 mg). Wash each main dish down with two cartons of 1 percent white milk (150 mg each) and kids are consuming a daily average of 1,525 milligrams of sodium. For lunch alone.
Ventura, a former nutrition educator at LAUSD, says Binkle once told her: "You have to recognize the food they're getting at school is so much better than the food they're getting at the liquor stores, or fast food, or at home."
"You may be right, David," she replied, "but just because one thing is relatively better than the other doesn't mean it's good. If you want to be a nutritional leader, be a nutritional leader. Don't be slightly better than the worst."
To Jennie Cook, co-founder of nonprofit group Food for Lunch, which advocates fresh, whole foods at schools, the real devil is processing. "Processed food creates compulsive eaters," says Cook, a nutrition activist who started Food for Lunch with pediatrician Rebecca Crane. "It creates sugar addictions. It creates allergies and histamine reactions."
In fairness, the district has been ahead of the curve in certain respects. In 2005, Los Angeles Unified made headlines by banning sodas and chips. This change — the single most important one in LAUSD's food quality in the past decade — was pushed through by then–board member Marlene Canter, who had spoken with a neighbor, pediatric endocrinologist Fran Kaufman, author of the book Diabesity. Kaufman told Canter the district needed to stop selling sodas in school vending machines.
Since then, LAUSD also has eliminated many of the worst offenders in school food — MSG, palm oils, trans fats — and introduced whole wheat, brown rice and vegetarian entrées.
The district also has created healthy versions of some of the typically least healthy fast-food meals. A corn dog on LAUSD's menu isn't your average corn dog — even if few students know it. Burritos, chicken wings, hamburgers, even french fries have been nutritionally modified into healthier versions of traditionally unhealthy foods. Fast food, the rationale goes, is what kids crave. So give it to them. But sneak in the healthiness.
School district food officials say their biggest challenge is to produce healthy food that is both cheap and appealing to students. Healthy meals do no one any good unless they are being eaten. One main element of the district's approach is to give students a number of menu choices each day.
To Cook, Ventura and others, those choices are a big part of the problem. Kids can mix and match, with the result being unhealthy meals. Ventura would rather see a single "grown-up" meal done well, and she could do without the "potato smiles," "cucumber coins," "breakfast surprises" and other items with gimmicky names.