Healthy school lunch efforts face daunting hurdles

Tue May 26, 2009 7:21pm EDT
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By Lisa Baertlein

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - School cafeteria meals like low-fat pizzas with whole grain crust don't taste too bad to Paola Villatoro, a 17-year-old at Downtown Magnet High School in Los Angeles.

"Some of it is pretty good," she said.

But West Adams Preparatory School student Alfredo Segura doesn't like them. "It tastes like prison food," said Segura, 16, as he and other students ate snacks at a fast-food joint near the school.

Los Angeles Unified School District is an anti-junk-food pioneer, but the obstacles it faces show how difficult it is to change habits shaped by decades of unhealthy eating promoted by the mammoth fast-food industry.

The district's food services department has thrown out deep-fat fryolators, added more fresh foods and reduced sodium in cafeteria meals. It also has outlawed sugary sodas and banished junk food vending machines on campus.

But enforcement has been spotty and fast-food chains and convenience stores wait outside school gates, eager to provide students with a fix.

Even though she likes some of the school meals, Villatoro joins friends for weekly lunches at a fast-food outlet across from the school.

The number of U.S. fast-food restaurants exploded to about 220,000 in 2001 from 30,000 in 1970. And over the last three decades, spending on fast food hit $110 billion from $6 billion, according the public-health focused nonprofit Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.   Continued...

<p>Garlic fries are displayed in New York April 15, 2009. REUTERS/Eric Thayer</p>