L.A.'s school children recently made national news for rejecting black bean burgers and Pad Thai, and in our own area, New Trier students refused whole-grain pastas and breads. So, what exactly is a school lunch reformer to do? "The kids won't eat that" is a frequent refrain from food service administrators, who genuinely worry that children in their district will go without the nutrition they need if they aren't offered foods they like.
The current state of school lunch is often compared to a school library filled exclusively with comic books: while there's nothing wrong with comic books, they don't teach children good reading habits. I think this metaphor can be extended further: we don't expect kids to automatically jump from picture books to comic books to novels. Adults provide a structured learning environment, sometimes called "scaffolding" so that children naturally develop the ability to strengthen their reading skills.
This same system could be applied to eating and "taste education." A 1990 study found that childrens' preferences for flavoring were learned through modeling and experience: when exposed more often to either a sweet or salty flavor, kids' preference for a particular taste increased as their exposure increased. Some schools are using this knowledge to increase students' acceptance of healthy foods: in New Orleans, a group of students, dubbing themselves the "Rethinkers," embarked on a study of how to improve school lunch. They studied sophisticated lunches in a school district in Portland, Oregon, where they found that the students happily ate foods like beet pizza, organic chicken and couscous with peas. The Rethinkers reported that students in Portland were engaged in the entire process of lunch, from growing food to cooking to serving and eating it, and were offered "real" cutlery and trays to round out their experience. They found that their own peers would eat fresh, local foods as long as they could identify them, and that school gardening increased the chances that students would eat fresh foods.
Other initiatives show the value of "scaffolding" in sensory and taste education. Slow Food International "supports an innovative approach to food and taste education based on the reawakening and training of the senses and the study of food from land to table." In my own hometown, SAGE (Schools Actively Gardening in Evanston) has been working with volunteers to bring students into the garden and have them grow and taste their own fresh produce. "Taste education" is a core value of this program, which also involves experiential learning direct from the garden as students plant, tend, and harvest food. One measure of the effect of this program: when fresh fruit and vegetable carts were introduced at the end of the last school year, school food services struggled to keep up with the demand for produce.
One last thought: a later article on the LA foods points out yet another problem in school lunch: making any food decent and palatable on such a large scale. Students who liked the food when prepared in small batches for tastings later made very reasonable complaints, unrelated to the health of the foods: some foods were moldy, others burnt or undercooked. We can't expect students' tastes to change overnight without any education, but we must also remember that no child should have to eat food that's been mistreated.