Los Angeles black markets in everything

by on December 21, 2011 at 4:36 am in Food and Drink | Permalink

LAUSD students hate the new lunch menu.

The district has received awards for improving lunches from the U.S.D.A and from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, but the students literally aren’t having it. Participation in the lunch program is down, lots of food is being thrown away, kids are coming to class hungry and L.A. Unified’s food services director, Dennis Barrett, acknowledged the rollout of the new menu was a “disaster,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

When the district tested out the menu, it found that 75 percent of students liked the food, but the food at the taste-test did not have translate well to mass production. One student the Times spoke with Andre Jahchan, a 16-year-old at Esteban Torres High School, said the food was “super good” at the tasting but it was super gross on campus: the chicken pozole was watery, the vegetable tamale was burned and the noodles were soggy.

Adults have been selling “black market” candy, chips and instant noodles to hungry students, who have been ditching lunch and suffering from headaches, stomach pains and even anemia, the Times reports.

Here is more, and for the pointer I thank Todd Myers.  Here is Todd’s new book Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism is Harming the Environment.

1 Signe Rousseau December 21, 2011 at 4:57 am

Sounds very familiar to what happened in the UK a couple of years ago. Jamie Oliver seems to be the common denominator: http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/article63611.ece

2 Andrew' December 21, 2011 at 5:00 am

In my humble abode, I cook some hamburger helper, then if they like it I work to replicate the recipe as healthy. I don’t expect a doctor’s club to lather praises on my initial menu however.

3 Sam B December 21, 2011 at 5:50 am

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. 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.

4 Andrew' December 21, 2011 at 7:23 am

They simply did it wrong. They got praise for the plan from ‘experts’ rather than the successful implementation. Then they tested the best case rather than testing the worst case. Also, any big changes, while more likely to garner accolades from experts, are probably more risky than just making steady methodical tweaks. I also question whether they have the right goals. Kids need nutrients and less toxins and hydrogenated oils. They don’t need low calorie, as they need exercise. So, you can play with the calories as long as kids have recess and soccer. They also don’t need eco-friendly as anything that undermines critical nutrition during critical periods is a negative investment. Adults can dink around with eco-fads if they want.

5 Bruce Cleaver December 21, 2011 at 8:46 am


Very well stated.

6 msgkings December 21, 2011 at 1:03 pm

Yep. + another 100.

7 Bill December 21, 2011 at 9:54 am

Sam, I agree with you.

First, any change in food preparation and menus needs time to work out.

Second, there is a more subtle problem: students have a reference point of convenience food (french fries, hamburgers, tater tots, etc.) that they are comparing to what is now being offered. They have an expectation of being fed what is advertised on TV as Happy Meals, and expect their food choices to be what is offered in a fast food restaurant.

Third, had the article been in fact been balanced, they would have looked at successful food conversions–like the efforts of Chez Panesee founder in Berkeley–and measured the food preparation and menu against that. The reference point, in other words, could have been, not the past, but other successful programs.

Headlines like this sell, for the reasons you mentioned.

What you miss, and what you provided, is the analysis.

8 John Thacker December 21, 2011 at 10:31 am

The descriptions in the article sound quite a bit worse than “School Food Tastes Bad, Yet Again.” I don’t think that there’s the equivalence that you’re positing. But sure, comparisons would be appropriate.

The problem of food not scaling up to mass and difficult ways of serving is well known to, e.g., airline food. Airlines have brought in famous chefs to design food, but the actual result of food that has to be delivered after sitting around and then rapidly heated up is certainly not up to the intended standard.

9 John Thacker December 21, 2011 at 10:35 am

So you’re saying that the claim in the article that “participation in the lunch program is down” isn’t accurate? Because that seems to be a relevant data point.

Certainly kids everywhere complain about the quality of the school lunch. But the article claims that kids are complaining about it more, and that they have hard evidence in the form of participation rates and wasted food rates. Perhaps they’re wrong, but that seems to be the kind of evidence that you’re asking for.

I think you’re bending reality out of wishful thinking. But perhaps the article is simply wrong about its facts– but it is attempting to present comparative data, not just “School Food is Bad” articles without context.

10 Andrew' December 21, 2011 at 11:35 am

Noone here is saying anything ‘against’ cafeterias. But there is a universal flaw in judging people by their intentions rather than the result. All I’m saying is they need to do some of the same things we do in the home. For example, sneaky foods are fine. I don’t care if my toddler likes broccoli sauteed with a dash of EVOO. I care that they injest a minimal amount of cruciferous vegetable. which is probably infinitesimal considering most kids get zero. They can learn to enjoy these exotic foods later.

11 John Thacker December 22, 2011 at 9:40 am

I entirely agree with your posts. There’s a huge difference between pilot programs and how they scale.

I have an open mind about this, but there seem to be both anecdotes (food served after Best By dates) and data points (about participation, wasted food) pointing to problems. I’m disappointed that Bill and Sam seem so quick to dismiss them without apparently reading the article.

12 Sam B December 23, 2011 at 2:39 pm

First, rest assured, I did read the article before writing a critique of it. Some of the things I didn’t read in it informed that subsequent criticism. The article does cite reduced participation rates–first with large numbers “thousands” and “13%” before walking that back and giving some context along with a more representative drop of “5% or 6%”–but it doesn’t give broader context because it doesn’t have the space. Did the students drop out because the food was too healthy, poorly prepared, or did other forces play a role? For instance, LAUSD cites a cafeteria modernization program that apparently increased participation on average by 15% since 2008. I don’t think the article conclusively ties the recorded decline to the healthiness of meals that it cites in its headline.


The article implies that it was the healthiness of the food in its title, but it might be more accurate to have stated “L.A. schools’ freshly prepared lunches panned by students.”

At no point, did I deny the 5% to 6% decline in participation; rather, I question the LA Times’ willingness to run with those numbers and a few anecdotes to lay the blame at the door of healthier food. If anything, the article cites examples of poor food preparation. It mentions that the summer taste testing took place at the district’s central kitchen. The problem’s most likely stem from the transportation and service that takes place once school food leaves that facility for the trek to numerous individual cafeterias where lower-skilled workers in inferior facilities do work that–judging from the list of past staples like burgers and chicken nuggets which require little care to heat and serve–they’re not used to.

Finally, should a program that makes food substantially healthier for 95% of participating students be declared a failure? Most of the progress: ending flavored milk, increasing the quantity and quality of produce served, and drawing down levels of sodium and salt seem to escape, even from this article, largely unscathed. It sounds like most changes amount to teriyaki instead of Caribbean meatball sauce, neither of which are “down-home comfort food” as cited by one principal. The servers will improve, fewer kids will be exposed to soggy noodles and burned tamales, and the 5% who are unlikely to ever accept anything but the junk food they grew up with will eat hamburgers (limiting that addiction early is a big reason to require healthy school meals).

Ultimately, the article construes quality complaints and numbers that lacks context. For one last bit of perspective, LAUSD has struggled with secondary school lunch participation for years. It is 18.5% below the national median, rising from 28% in 02-03 to 40% in 04-05 and then falling to 31% in 06-07–all before the new healthy meals arrived on the scene. The article doesn’t deal with the larger issues, that’s my primary complaint.

search for “participation”

13 Firat Uenlue December 21, 2011 at 6:37 am

How much does the US/this district spend per student on food and how does it compare with what, say, China spends per student in total? Would be interesting to see the results…

14 Rahul December 21, 2011 at 6:50 am

In India the “official” allocation is approximately 5 Rupees (0.10 $) per student per meal.

15 prior_approval December 21, 2011 at 7:14 am

A black market in bag lunches?

Well, if this is the idea of a lunch, as per the article –
‘The juniors pull three bags of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and soda from their backpacks. “This is our daily lunch,” Iraides says.’

Somehow, I don’t think ‘eco-fads’ are the root problem here, and trendy environmentalism likely has nothing to do with Cheetos.

But this really struck my eye – ‘Some of the more exotic dishes are out, including the beef jambalaya….’ Well, finally something where FCPS was way out in front of LAUSD in terms of trendsetting – though I’ll admit to possibly not remembering correctly, but I recall the ‘exotic’ jambalaya being a normal part of the roughly 2 choices per day rotation (including things like TVP patties, for example) of what the cafeteria served when I was 10. Of course, maybe FCPS didn’t prepare a proper jambalaya – again, IIRC, the stuff came in large cans (lots of the food in the FCPS those days was standard commodity USDA fare, after all).

Why do I have this strange suspicion that if a bunch of LA students were forced to eat what we did in intermediate school, this article would have been roughly the same in terms of students not wanting to eat the food, food wastage, horrible menu choices rejected en masse by students just wanting a Hostess fruit pie, or snoball, or twinkie, or cupcake to soothe their hunger pangs. And this was before either the EPA (thanks for nnothing, you leftie Nixon) or the Dept. of Education even existed.

16 Andrew' December 21, 2011 at 7:32 am

I think the point is simply that if you make the lunch un-tasty enough, that’s the same as serving Cheetos, because that’s what happens. Anyone with kids will know this. They have an instinctive aversion to anything adults eat to signal their exquisite palate. If they don’t like it, they don’t eat it. It’s frustrating as a parent as I’m sure it is for a lunch room coordinator, but no matter how much you praise how healthy something is the kids don’t care. We didn’t always know hydrogenated oils were bad, but now that we do we can get rid of them, just as we are learning whether BPA can linings are bad (and as endocrine disruptor incidentally potentially one contributor to the obesity problem). These things provide convenience and low cost and It’s going to be a slog replacing them.

17 John Thacker December 21, 2011 at 10:33 am

But what were they eating before. The article specifically says “participation in the lunch program is down.” Is that wrong?

I think people are badly misreading this article due to special pleading. They want to say that it’s a equivalence.

18 John Schilling December 21, 2011 at 10:38 am

The students aren’t eating Cheetos because that’s their idea of the perfect lunch. The students are eating Cheetos because that’s the least objectionable lunch they can actually manage. Hamburger and fries requires a kitchen, which the school will not provide. A bag lunch of PB&J sandwich and fresh fruit requires a properly-stocked refrigerator at home, which the parents will not provide if they imagine the school will be providing healthy and palatable meals. Chips and soda, require only a bit of cash and space in a backpack.

Complaining about institutional food is universal. Actually refusing to eat it, is a sign that the institution is doing something very wrong. And in this case, it’s not hard to guess what that is.

19 Rahul December 21, 2011 at 10:53 am

We always had to pack our own lunch to school. What’s the situation in other nations? Do European schools feed students lunch too?

20 dearieme December 21, 2011 at 2:24 pm

They do in Britain. But my mother would have none of it: we went home for lunch. On the rare occasion she couldn’t give us lunch, she gave us money to go out to a cafe for lunch. This had the great advantage that in my last year at school, when I no longer had to wear uniform, I could, with care, go to a pub and have a half pint of beer with lunch. Yippee!

21 CBBB December 21, 2011 at 5:09 pm

“when I no longer had to wear uniform, I could, with care, go to a pub and have a half pint of beer with lunch. Yippee!”

I thought a pint of beer WAS lunch in Britain

22 Andrew' December 21, 2011 at 11:50 am

“Complaining about institutional food is universal.”

Often their is a pet rat involved, but you aren’t allowed to have pet rats in public school.

23 Yancey Ward December 21, 2011 at 12:12 pm

And in this case, it’s not hard to guess what that is.

I am afraid the answer to this will be near strip searches for contraband Doritos.

24 Andrew' December 21, 2011 at 1:45 pm

“I am afraid the answer to this will be near strip searches for contraband Doritos.”

You know it’s bad when the bully’s don’t even want your lunch money.

25 Chris Hansen December 21, 2011 at 8:15 am

The vegetable tamale was burned? Send it back and no tip.

26 Silas Barta December 21, 2011 at 4:40 pm

What don’t you take a seat, right over there…

27 asdf December 21, 2011 at 10:32 am

Poor low IQ kids have no future time orientation. Shocker!

28 Anthony December 21, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Poor, low-IQ kids actually have some standards of taste. Shocker!

29 Brandon Berg December 21, 2011 at 10:33 am

I wish the media would stop treating the PCRM as if it were an actual authority on anything.

30 zbicyclist December 21, 2011 at 11:04 am

As Barbie might say, “Logistics is hard”. Under idea conditions I’m sure this food is delicious. Made under the conditions of a typical school cafeteria, I have no trouble believing it’s terrible.

To Sam B’s point, I once volunteered at a homeless shelter that had a recent Kendall College grad as the chief volunteer chef. He was working with standard homeless shelter material (whatever shows up on the truck, basically) but the result was amazing — for that year! Maybe Redlands U has a top notch person at that private university, but this isn’t the sort of staffing you can afford at each public school cafeteria.

31 NAME REDACTED December 21, 2011 at 11:12 am

So kids starving themselves because the food is just that bad. Great, now they will suffer from much lower IQ, be unhealthier, shorter, etc etc.

Thanks Government.

32 Cliff December 21, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Eh. I pretty much went without lunch during much of high school. Maybe it stunted me or something, but I know there are studies of people eating one meal a day vs. 3+, and there is no difference in caloric intake. During Ramadan, caloric intake actually goes up.

33 BigFire December 21, 2011 at 2:25 pm

The point of the school lunch and the Big Brother-ish attitude is that for many kids, school lunch provides the single biggest source of calories they’ll get throughout the day.

Of course, by making it indigestible, they’ve effectively cut off that source.

34 Rahul December 21, 2011 at 8:49 pm

With obesity being a major teenage problem are we really so concerned about a calorie deficit? What’s the incidence of calorie-deficient teens in American medicine?

35 CBBB December 21, 2011 at 2:59 pm

Didn’t get proper nutrition during your youth – okay this explains a lot actually….

36 Eric December 21, 2011 at 11:46 am

I highly doubt the notion that truly starving children are rejecting school lunch, be it the old slop or the new slop.

A long time ago, I helped some neighbors move to a different apartment. After one of the loads, I gave some of the kids a ride back in my pick up. One of the kids sat up front. There was an bruised apple on the floorboard of my truck that had been there a couple weeks. As soon as the girl got in the truck, she asked if she could eat the apple. I said of course. She devoured it. No embarrassment, no humility on her face. Just hunger.

The kids complaining about the watery pozole had dinner the night before and a bowl of cheerios before they came to school. The truly hungry kids ate lunch, as it may have been the only hot meal they get all day. And those kids obviously aren’t obese.

37 zrzzz December 21, 2011 at 10:15 pm

Yeah, if you’re truly hungry, you’ll eat burnt tamales and you’ll enjoy it. If you’re not starving, clearly they have an alternate nutrition source outside of school, and the ability to pack a lunch that suits their prissy sensibilities.

38 John Mansfield December 21, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Johnny L. Cochran Jr. Middle School?!?

39 CBBB December 21, 2011 at 2:40 pm

They should serve Korean food. I taught at a public school in South Korea and the food in the cafeteria was (with some exceptions) very good (especially compared to the typical cafeteria food at a North American school).

40 bunker brown December 21, 2011 at 4:54 pm

I don’t know why schools have an obligation to provide a cafeteria. Kids should be required to bring their own lunch, and if they don’t, they starve.

41 CBBB December 21, 2011 at 4:57 pm

Because some kids come from families that can barely get by….oh wait the poor starving to death is one of the dreams of people around here….I get it now.

42 Rahul December 22, 2011 at 12:57 am

Why not concentrate efforts on the kids that need this?

43 CBBB December 22, 2011 at 1:01 am

A program for the poor quickly becomes a poor program. That would be nice but once you start aiming the program at only poor children it won’t be long before it’s completely eliminated since the poor are marginalized politically.

44 CBBB December 22, 2011 at 1:02 am

Like I said above though I’ve seen good public school cafeteria food first hand – maybe the problem is with the cuisine being served (most types of food don’t work buffet/mass-production style).

45 crankee December 21, 2011 at 6:06 pm

Hmm, newfangled ultra fashionable educational reform praised by eco-“experts” and only tested in limited, “best case” scenarios fails miserably in the real world of American public schools.

Sounds like 99% of all the other educational ideas favored by the vast, public school bureaucracy.

46 Rahul December 21, 2011 at 8:52 pm

hungry students, who have been ditching lunch and suffering from headaches, stomach pains and even anemia

In my times headaches and stomach pain were choice weapons in the teenage arsenal of malingering. Just saying, that it’s naive to take these complaints at face value.

47 Floccina December 21, 2011 at 9:33 pm

Where ever I have had it Government food made by government cooks has been very very bad.
BTW we really do not know if “health food” is more healthy.

48 CBBB December 21, 2011 at 9:38 pm

That’s kind of nonsense.

49 Marian Kechlibar December 22, 2011 at 3:20 am

I have seen good “government” food in Spain at a university, but they had intense competition from nearby restaurants and cafeterias, and they could only keep any eaters by cooking well.

Wherever I was: where the government cooks had captive audience, the quality went to hell.

Without competition, the only motivation to produce quality goods is personal pride, and that counts for maybe 5% of the population. Furthermore, in groups of people, the outliers are actively pulled down by the apathetic mass which does not tolerate anyone reminding them of their mediocrity. (And why would you bother to cook good, if you get paid the same money as the next cook who couldn’t care less?)

50 bag sealing tape December 24, 2011 at 7:11 am

Like the article, well written. Next time to support you, is your article more vivid! Hope that more articles appear.

51 filing December 24, 2011 at 7:11 am

The author’s literary talent is very good, is too pessimistic.

52 jrese December 24, 2011 at 9:08 am

Very well stated.

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