The School Food Struggle

In the fall of 2011, new federal nutrition standards were applied to school meals. Local districts scrambled to meet the requirements and pay for more health-promoting menus. News originated in Los Angeles, because of its status as a major trend-setting American city with an enormous education apparatus, responsible for 650,000 meals per day.

There had been test runs during the summer, where some new offerings seemed fine. But mass production is another matter, and some items did not adapt well to the exigencies of scale, and others didn’t keep well.

There were all kinds of complaints. Nobody wanted to learn how to appreciate bean burgers, quinoa, Caribbean meatballs, vegetarian curries, or Pad Thai. Students pronounced lunch “inedible” and threw it away. The press spoke of “unopened milk cartons and untouched entrees and salads being heaved, en masse, into school dumpsters.” Multiple acts of rebellion wasted hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, and tons of food that the inhabitants of LA’s Skid Row would no doubt have appreciated.

Rebelling the school lunch reform

Thousands of kids just said no. Some brought snacks from home, or stopped off at a convenience store for chips and sugar-sweetened beverages to tide them over.

A high school principal wrote a letter to the food services director, comparing the new program to alcohol prohibition, which caused so much crime in the United States from 1920 to 1933. At the same time, young people strove to undermine the reforms. It wasn’t long before cracks started to appear in the system that was put in place, including what was called “an underground ring of junk food bootlegging.”

Noted pontificator Rush Limbaugh alleged that only 13% of students were participating in the lunch program, while 87% shopped the black market. He took up the cause of individual sovereignty:

If people can find a way around what’s dictated to them they will do it, and a black market ends up being created… There is a mafia, there is an organized crime of alternate food at lunch!

Of course he capitalized on the controversy to throw shade on the free lunch program. If these kids can afford to buy junk food from their profiteering peers, why did they need a government-financed meal program in the first place?

The food services department acquiesced to popular demand, and brought back menu items it had recently banned. Even the dreaded pizza made came out of retirement, although it was redesigned with whole-wheat crust and low-fat cheese.

Journalist Maressa Brown took a scolding tone, accusing that administration had “set themselves up to fail.” She claimed that the students could not be blamed for rejecting unfamiliar dishes, because adults would do the same thing:

Even the most refined foodies were once kids who probably picked at their plates and blew off anything that wasn’t PB&J or mac ‘n’ cheese. Knowing this, they’ve gotta get creative. You have to be innovative when turning kids onto different fare than they’re used to. Furthermore, here’s a news flash: Junk food can be made healthier!! And kids will still eat it!

Of course, it is always easier to criticize the efforts that other people make. Brown claimed that the managers of school menus could have been much more successful by hiding vegetables in soup, and swapping turkey burgers for beef. They should have substituted organic preparations for condiments that are based on high fructose corn syrup. Their worst mistake was in expecting to change young people’s preferences overnight, because…

Turning to ethnic, gourmet cuisine isn’t the answer to making a dent in childhood obesity. Getting creative by healthy-izing the foods they already know and enjoy is.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “L.A. School District’s Healthy Lunches Spur Junk Food ‘Black Market’,”, 12/23/11
Source: “Students Eating ‘Junky’ Food Is Better Than Not Eating at All,”, 12/23/11
Image by fitri agung/(CC BY 2.0)

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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