Feedback Loops, Institutional Reform and the Pitfalls of a Second Best World

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As part of our series on Culinary Modernism, I’m republishing some older posts and essays from REALFOOD.ORG. This piece was originally published on

My professional experience with institutional food comes from working as the executive chef at a retirement community. It wasn’t the sexiest cooking job I ever had but it happened soon after I started studying nutrition seriously and that made it pretty interesting.

There is a certain amount of power inherent in institutional cooking. You can make unilateral changes in the food served and your clientele don’t have a lot to say about it. With great power, comes great responsibility.

When I came in as chef, I was able to unilaterally make changes to the menu that improved the nutrition of nearly two hundred people. Potatoes five days a week? How about two. Fish once a week? Let’s double that! Iceberg lettuce? We’re going with local organic mixed greens! Cream of Wheat? Try 10 grain cereal. More fruit deserts, more whole grains, more sweet potatoes, good yogurt in the snack room!

But . . . there was a limit to what you could change without push back and food ending up in the garbage, people eating in their rooms, bitter, loud complaints. In order to be successful, you needed to create feedback loops: listening, accommodating and educating. (OK, you guys didn’t like the stunning, gorgeous vermicelli-style fresh beets garnishing your salad. It won’t happen again.)

That’s why I’m really enthusiastic about the process of school lunch reform that San Francisco is engaged in. It has the potential to improve choices for lots and lots of people and they have taken input from their clientele very, very seriously.

They proposed three very distinct eating experiences aligning with the developmental stages in a student’s life, but most fundamentally based on what the students themselves expressed wanting. For elementary school, they imagine lunchrooms where kids sit together at round tables and eat family style — learning to serve one another in stages (healthiest foods are brought out first by nutrition staff workers who oversee their own carts).

Principal Dennis Chew of Lau Elementary, who had initially expressed skepticism about the communal dining idea during an early workshop, was inspired by the final design and the idea of bringing back the ritual and lost art of communal dining: “The elementary school children are the best teachers for the parents.”

He requested that the pilot program take place at his school, where a large majority of the 700 students are Asian immigrants. “Their exposure to American culture is coming through the food that the dining services provides,” Principal Chew explained. The cart concept would work well, he believed, because it would be reminiscent of familiar styles of eating, like dim sum, but feature new foods.

For middle school, the focus shifts toward more independence; students can choose “grab-n-go lunches” from mobile carts and then sit in spaces designed by them.

And in high school, it’s all about choice; students multitasking on their short lunch break leverage the convenience of new technology, like the app tested out in the simulation, and are rewarded with discounts for making healthy choices and eating at school more frequently. They spend less time waiting in lines and more time hanging with friends.

They were lucky to get a grant to give them the resources to hire a top line design firm and create the breathing room to do the feedback process. Hopefully what they learn can be applied elsewhere, because not everyone is going to have those luxuries. Roll out and implementation are going to be obviously tricky and problematic too. That’s where my biggest concerns lie.

Pilot projects like this are really, really hard to translate to scale under real world conditions.

Megan McArdle wrote about the pitfalls of implementing successful pilot projects in response to the menu changes in Los Angeles a few years ago.

It seems that the LA Unified School District recently revamped its lunch menus to eliminate fattening standbys like chicken nuggets, nachos, and flavored milk. The resulting meals are much healthier, but apparently also much less appetizing. As a result, participation in the program is down, and the LA Times found students replacing the Beef Jambalaya and lentil cutlets with things like Cheetos.

This happened despite the fact that the menu was tested extensively before they put it into operation:

Andre Jahchan, a 16-year-old sophomore at Esteban Torres High School, said the food was “super good” at the summer tasting at L.A. Unified’s central kitchen. But on campus, he said, the chicken pozole was watery, the vegetable tamale was burned and hard, and noodles were soggy.

“It’s nasty, nasty,” said Andre, a member of InnerCity Struggle, an East L.A. nonprofit working to improve school lunch access and quality. “No matter how healthy it is, if it’s not appetizing, people won’t eat it.”

At Van Nuys High School, complaints about the food were so widespread that Principal Judith Vanderbok wrote to Barrett with the plea: “Please help! Bring back better food!” . . .

. . . Sometimes the success was due to the high quality, fully committed staff. Early childhood interventions show very solid success rates at doing things like reducing high school dropout and incarceration rates, and boosting employment in later life. Head Start does not show those same results–not unless you squint hard and kind of cock your head to the side so you can’t see the whole study. Those pilot programs were staffed with highly trained specialists in early childhood education who had been recruited specially to do research. But when they went to roll out Head Start, it turned out the nation didn’t have all these highly trained experts in early childhood education that you could recruit specially–and definitely not at the wages they were paying. Head Start ended up requiring a two-year associates degree, and recruiting from a pool that included folks who were just looking for a job, not a life’s mission to rescue poor children while adding to the sum of human knowledge.

. . . So consider the LAUSD test. In the testing phase, when the program was small, they were probably working with a small group of schools which had been specially chosen to participate. They did not have a sprawling supply chain to manage. The kids and the workers knew they were being studied. And they were asking the kids which food they liked–a question which, social science researchers will tell you, is highly likely to elicit the answer that they liked something.

That is very different from choosing to eat it in a cafeteria when no one’s looking. And producing the food is also very different. Cooking palatable food in large amounts is hard, particularly when you don’t have an enormous budget–and the things that make us fat are, by and large, also the things that are palatable when mass-produced. Bleached grains and processed fats have a much longer shelf life than fresh produce, and can take a hell of a lot more handling. Salt and sugar are delicious, but they are also preservatives that, among other things, disguise the flavor of stale food.

I can’t help but worry that the second best version of these changes ends up worse than what they replace. But, I hope not, because they sound pretty awesome/

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