By Tracy Yao, 16, Covina HS
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I’ve been eating cafeteria food since eighth grade, when I signed up for the free and reduced-price lunch program. I used to bring a sandwich to school. But since money was tight at home, my parents believed it was a good idea to sign up.

I didn’t like school food and thought it was unhealthy because some items looked too greasy. I liked Mondays when it’s pasta since I like pasta even outside of school. But on Wednesdays, the orange pork for Asian Day left a bad aftertaste. I felt like I was trying my best to eat healthy because I would always get salad or fruit to go with the meal.

The idea to look for the nutritional information came from my editor. I also believed it was a good idea. I wanted to know what was in the food I was eating, since I have been eating cafeteria food for so many years, without thinking about it. After reading the nutritional information, I changed my mind about school food.

By looking at the nutritional information, Tracy realized that food like the chicken pot pie didn't have as much fat as she had thought. Photo by Yvonne Ha, 17, Covina HS

One day at the end of March I entered the cafeteria and looked at all the walls to see if the nutritional information was posted. I couldn’t find it anywhere, only a sign saying that cell phones and iPods must be out of sight while in the cafeteria.

After receiving my food, I asked the cashier, “May I see the nutritional paper please?” The cashier paused for a minute, then opened her drawer to take out an application for the free and reduced lunch program. “Oh no,” I said, “I wanted the nutrition paper, the one about the school’s food.”

“Oh, then you’ll need to get that from her,” she said, indicating the other cashier. I asked the same question.

“I’ll try to find out. Come ask me tomorrow.” I started to wonder if we even had one.

I asked the cafeteria manager the next day. She told me that it should be on the Covina-Valley Unified School District’s website.

But after spending 10 to 15 minutes searching the site, I couldn’t find it. I only saw the menu. There was also general information about nutrition and how teenagers can stay healthy, but nothing about how healthy the food served in the schools is. I think it’s good that the district wants us to stay healthy and not become obese. But, I found it hypocritical that the website provides information on how to stay fit but doesn’t even tell us what is in our school’s food. If we become used to making unhealthy choices at school, how can we make healthy choices at home? We do have a salad bar in the buffet line, where you can get as much as you want since it’s self-serve. But I have seen so many students put so much ranch dressing on top that I think it cancels out the benefits of the salad. Although we have to choose either milk or fruit, we almost always get the chocolate milk. Even I sometimes get the chocolate milk.

Staying healthy is the student’s decision. But the school can help by posting the nutritional information. Students might ignore it since most ignore the sign about cell phones and iPods. But those who are curious might learn something. Knowing about the carbs, fat and calories can educate us. Even if we are not really sure what those numbers mean, higher numbers will make us wonder if that food is really healthy.

Also, about 41 percent of the students at my school get free or reduced-price lunches, including me. With almost half of the students on the program, I think it’s a good idea for the school to post the nutritional information.

To get the nutritional information, I called my school’s district office. I spoke to Maxine Sacanli-Hicks, who is the director of Nutrition Services. She e-mailed me the information.

When I looked at the nutrition facts, I was surprised at the numbers because some were lower than I expected. I had expected the pizza to be unhealthy, but the sodium level (350 milligrams) was less than the ravioli (706 mg). The government recommends no more than 2,400 mg of sodium a day. If we eat three meals a day, that’s 800 mg per meal. Even though the pasta meal had more than 700 calories, there was a lot of vitamin A and calcium. Looking at the items from the turkey pot pie to the egg rolls to the orange pork made me see that the numbers, such as the fats, weren’t that high. I was surprised that school food wasn’t bad for us, after all. But we still need to make good choices about what we eat, because some meals contained a high amount of sodium.

I learned through this process that by looking at the nutritional information, I can make better choices between the healthiest stuff and others that I should perhaps cut back on. The sodium was pretty high for some of the meals that I eat every week, such as the teriyaki beef dunkers that were at 1,239 mg for the full meat that includes the salad, main course and milk. Now that I know this information, I will try to avoid meals such as the chicken fried steak, since it is high in both sodium and calories. But I’ll keep eating the pasta and the other meals.

In the end, after finding the nutritional information, I would say just give school food a try. Or try to seek out the nutritional information, since it’s usually healthier than we think!

At Venice HS, the nutritional information is easy to get

In April, I asked one of the cafeteria workers if they had print-outs of the nutritional information. He said yes, but there was one posted in the cafeteria by the utensils. I looked later and it was posted. I’d seen it before but forgotten.

He asked me what I needed it for and I told him for an L.A. Youth article. He told me to come back the next day and he would print it out for me. I went the next day and he gave me the nutritional values for every item they serve in the cafeteria, from breakfast to lunch, entree to condiments. It was really easy and the manager seemed enthusiastic that someone actually wanted to know.

The nutritional information is posted clearly but gets ignored as people rush inside the cafeteria. I think a lot of students are not really looking at the information.

I’ve always wondered how many calories some dishes had. I was surprised by how relatively healthy many dishes were. Most dishes have less than 500 calories, which is about one-fourth of the recommended daily amount of a 2,000-calorie diet. The pizza bagel I sometimes get for breakfast has only 207 calories. I’m a vegetarian so the vegetarian chili is one of my favorite lunches. It has only 393 calories. This isn’t much compared to fast food meals such as the Big Mac that has 540 calories or not surprisingly, a double-double from In-N-Out that has 670 calories.

I want to thank the manager since he was nice and supportive, and actually seemed glad that someone was interested in finding out about what they’re eating. His name is Marcelino Mejia and he is the Food Service Manager at Venice High. I really appreciated that he helped me.
Edgar Mejia, 17, Venice HS