Anyone who has ever tried to sneak healthy food into kids' lunches knows what Chicago Public Schools is going through.
Sometimes kids openly embrace the new food. Sometimes they eat it without realizing the difference. And sometimes they refuse it altogether.
CPS has met with all three reactions this school year, when it stopped serving daily nachos, Pop-Tarts and doughnuts and introduced healthier options at breakfast and lunch. But in a sign of how challenging this transition can be for schools, district figures show that lunch sales for September through December dropped by about 5 percentage points since the previous year, or more than 20,000 lunches a day.
During visits to several CPS schools over the last few months, the Tribune heard many accounts of students throwing away their lunches. Others say they opt for "cookies and slushies" from the canteen or wait to eat until they get home. And while some kids said they still like their school meals, the vast majority used the same word to describe the food: nasty.
"If they're going to feed us healthy, they need to feed us something good that's healthy," said Mijoy Roussell, a sixth-grader at Claremont Academy who was skipping lunch in favor of a packet of candy. "This food is disgusting, which is why I'm not eating lunch."
For the 2010-11 school year, CPS and its caterer, Chartwells-Thompson, switched to menus featuring more whole-grain products, less sodium and a wider variety of vegetables. Most cereals offered have less than 10 grams of sugar per serving.
Chartwells and CPS note that these changes exceed existing U.S. Department of Agriculture meal standards, but they appear to have created negative impressions of healthy foods among many students.
"They want us to eat healthy food, but the food has no flavor," sophomore Jacob Hernandez said as he picked at unsalted rice and beans at North-Grand High School. "Last year, they had a yellow Puerto Rican rice. But this year it's all dry, and you can tell they put a lot of stuff in there, but what's the point if there is no flavor?"
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