Putting a Fork in the Spork . . .

. . . The Spork Report, that is.

Over the last year and a half or so, I experimented with writing two blogs, this one and my daily kid-and-food blog, The Lunch Tray.  My plan was to use The Spork Report as a forum for Houston ISD-specific school food news that might not be of interest to The Lunch Tray’s national readership.

But as much as I hate to admit defeat, the burden of keeping up two blogs has became too much for me and this blog is being discontinued as of today.  Thanks to all who followed The Spork Report, its Twitter feed and its Facebook page, and thanks to the Houston Chronicle for giving me the chance to share Spork Report posts on chron.com.

You can continue to follow my kid-and-food reporting, including HISD school food-related items, on The Lunch Tray.

 

- Bettina

Join Me Tomorrow for a Panel on School Food

In honor of Food Day later this month, Urban Harvest is hosting a series of events tomorrow which are likely to be of interest to Spork Report readers.

Starting at 4:30-5:30 pm at John H. Reagan High School, the Reagan Eco Club will lead a series of tours of the school’s Urban Harvest garden.  Then from 5:00-6:15pm in Reagan’s Teaching Theater there will be a screening of the documentary, “What’s on Your Plate?” (reviewed here).  And from 6:30-7:30, I hope you’ll join me for a panel discussion on the topic “School Lunch Updates” with panelists Brian Giles, Senior Administrator of HISD/Aramark Food Services; HISD trustee Juliet Stipeche; Recipe for Success‘s Gracie Cavnar; Christine Sullivan of Revolution Foods; and myself.  The panel will be moderated by Beverly Gor of Can Do Houston.

Reagan’s gardens are located on the corner of Arlington & 14th streets, and parking at the high school is available on Arlington or in the downstairs garage.

I hope to see some of you tomorrow!

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[While I serve on HISD's Food Services Parent Advisory Committee and the district's School Health Advisory Council (SHAC), all views expressed here (and on The Lunch Tray) are entirely my own.]

Me (and The Spork Report!) in the Houston Chronicle!

Just wanted to share this really nice feature story from yesterday’s Houston Chronicle about me and my two blogs, this one and The Lunch Tray. Thanks to reporter Claudia Feldman for giving me the opportunity!

By the way, the school lunch in the Chron photo was the actual lunch served that day in HISD elementary schools: turkey and cheese on a whole grain bun, broccoli, sweet potatoes, peaches and milk. The other option that day was chicken nuggets, but we’re clearly making real progress . . . .

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[While I serve on HISD's Food Services Parent Advisory Committee and the district's School Health Advisory Council (SHAC), all views expressed here (and on The Lunch Tray) are entirely my own.]

Back to School With The Spork Report!

I want to apologize to Spork Report readers for my long absence from this blog over the summer months. I’m back now and looking forward to using this space to talk about HISD school food and related issues in the year ahead.

Because the school year has just started, I don’t yet have information to report from the HISD School Food Parent Advisory Council meetings that I regularly attend. But I can report that on the national level the new school food regulations have now gone into effect around the country. HISD was already ahead of the curve on most of the required changes, but even in our district parents should be noticing an increase in whole grains, fruits and vegetables on their children’s lunch trays, along with a new requirement that students must take a fruit or vegetable as a component of their meal.  (The current HISD menus are here.)

I also want to mention an announcement yesterday by Mayor Annise Parker’s office regarding the formation of a new city-wide, anti-obesity initiative called “Healthy Houston.” According to the press release, the initiative has these goals:

  • Encouraging urban agriculture in community, school, backyard and rooftop gardens and, where feasible, on City property;
  • Improving access to healthy, affordable and locally produced food for all neighborhoods;
  • Supporting education regarding the physical and mental health risks of obesity and the benefits of sustainable agriculture, using locally produced food, consuming fresh fruits and vegetables, infant breastfeeding, providing healthy meals in our schools, physical activity and exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight; and
  • Enabling programs that increase physical activity and exercise in schools, at work, and in communities, including those that provide safe playgrounds and parks, pedestrian-friendly walkways, bicycle paths and other recreational opportunities.

I was pleased to see that one of the task force’s 22 members is Brian Giles, Senior Administrator of HISD Food Services.  With many of HISD’s students eating both breakfast and lunch at school, improved school food and “a la carte” offerings can play an important role in combatting childhood obesity and improving the health of students — even those who are not overweight or obese.

Looking forward to a new school year ahead with you on The Spork Report!

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[While I serve on HISD's Food Services Parent Advisory Committee and the district's School Health Advisory Council (SHAC), all views expressed here (and on The Lunch Tray) are entirely my own.]

HISD To Receive Twenty-One New Salad Bars this Fall

Earlier this year I told you about a visit to one of HISD’s three salad bars (aka “Fresh Express fruit and veggie carts”), this one located at Highland Heights Elementary.

As reported in that post, HISD Food Services stocks these carts not with traditional “salad” ingredients (like lettuce and croutons) but instead offers more kid-friendly crudité such as cucumber slices, baby carrots, broccoli florets, whole apples, canned diced pears, whole pears, canned apricot halves, canned peaches, oranges, pineapple and whole bananas.  Each month, one of these foods is also part of HISD’s new “Harvest of the Month” program, highlighting Texas-grown produce.

The fruit and veggie cart at Highland Heights Elementary

I’m pleased to report that this fall HISD will be getting twenty-one new fruit and veggie carts, made available to HISD through a variety of donors:  the Houston Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, HBO/Whole Foods Foundation, Chiquita/Fresh Express, and the United Fresh Foundation.

The district hasn’t yet determined which schools will be receiving a fruit and veggie cart but I’ll share that information here when it becomes available.

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Do HISD Parents Know They Can Opt Out of “First Class Breakfast?”

Over on today’s The Lunch Tray I ponder this question: do universal in-class breakfast programs like HISD’s “First Class Breakfast” inadvertently contribute to childhood obesity, even as they seek to alleviate childhood hunger?

Just last week I was talking to some Houston public schools moms (from more affluent neighborhoods) who were complaining that their children have been “double dipping” every morning.  That is, they eat a perfectly satisfactory breakfast at home and then go off to school where they eat some or all of the in-class breakfast offered for free by our district.

A few days later, I saw this report in the New York Times which indicates that NYC’s City Council is slowing the roll-out of that city’s universal, in-class breakfast program for precisely the same reason:

 The city’s health department hit the pause button after a study found that the Breakfast in the Classroom program, now used in 381 of the city’s 1,750 schools, was problematic because some children might be “inadvertently taking in excess calories by eating in multiple locations” — in other words, having a meal at home, or snacking on the way to school, then eating again in school.

At the same time, though, I do believe that our First Class Breakfast program serves legitimate needs in HISD, a district in which over 80% of kids qualify for free or reduced price lunch.  Even despite concerns about food waste, sanitation problems, lost instructional time, and the quality of the food served, I’m told that principals at less affluent Houston schools enthusiastically laud the program, citing increased attendance, reduced tardiness and fewer discipline problems.  Those are real benefits that shouldn’t be dismissed.

But the goals of alleviating childhood hunger without contributing to childhood obesity can peacefully co-exist.  At my child’s HISD elementary school, our principal offers parents the option to have their child’s breakfast card removed from the stack of available meal cards; without the card, no breakfast can be obtained.  And if the parent changes his or her mind on a given day, he or she can send a signed note to that effect and a meal will be served.

But what’s troubled me for some time is how rarely this solution seems to be employed across HISD.  On an admittedly anecdotal basis, I’ve been told by many parents that the choice to opt their children out of breakfast has never been offered to them by their respective principals.  And the district has done nothing (of which I’m aware) to make the option widely known to the public.

And that leads to the question of money.  School food service departments generally welcome universal breakfast programs because they bring in more federal reimbursement dollars, particularly in districts like ours with large numbers of children in economic need.  As the Food Research and Action Center noted in a a comprehensive report on school breakfast:

If states could increase participation so they reach 60 children with breakfast for every 100 that also eat lunch, FRAC estimates that an additional 2.4 million low-income children would be added to the breakfast program and states would have received an additional $583 million in child nutrition funding.

Thus, districts with in-class breakfast programs have an economic incentive to serve as many meals as possible, regardless of whether some meals are being served to kids who have no need for it — and whose parents would greatly prefer they not partake of it.

I’m going to inquire further about the implementation of the opt-out option and will report back here.  In the meantime, I’d be curious to hear from HISD parents about whether you’ve ever been informed by your school that you can opt your child out of the breakfast program, and how you generally feel about First Class Breakfast now that the program has been in place for some time.

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[While I serve on HISD's Food Services Parent Advisory Committee and the district's School Health Advisory Council (SHAC), all views expressed here (and on The Lunch Tray) are entirely my own.]

Is Houston ISD Moving Toward Junk-Food-Free Cafeterias?

First, I’d like to apologize to Spork Report readers for letting this blog languish while I was deeply engaged in the controversy surrounding so-called “pink slime” (aka “lean finely textured beef,” or LFTB). Comments and emails coming in on my main blog, The Lunch Tray, were so numerous that I simply could not keep up my Spork posts.  For a comprehensive update on what has been going on with LFTB, here’s a piece I wrote recently for the Guardian newspaper in the UK summarizing recent events.

Now I’d like to turn to a potentially exciting school food development here in Houston.

As Spork Report and Lunch Tray readers know, I’ve long been concerned about the quality of the so-called “a la carte” items sold by Houston ISD in its cafeterias and snack bar lines.  These foods, sold in direct competition with the federally reimbursable meal, tend to be far lower in nutritional quality than the main meal.  Think bright blue slushies, fried chips in gooey nacho sauce, Frito Pie, pizza slices, fried chicken sandwiches and ice cream.

slushie nachos

One kid's HISD-supplied lunch at Sharpstown high: bright blue and red slushie and fried chips with cheese sauce.

At a time when one in three kids are overweight or obese it is, in my opinion, utterly irresponsible for the district itself to be serving these sorts of foods to our kids solely to turn a profit.  And while it’s true that in some (but most definitely not all) cases these foods are nutritionally tweaked a bit to make them “better for you,” the district is still unwittingly sending our kids the message that eating these sorts of junk foods on a daily basis – as many HISD students do – is a perfectly fine dietary choice.

Then there is the entirely separate issue of the social stigma created when there are two lines in a school cafeteria, one for the nutritionally balanced school meal and one for a la carte.  Because the latter line does not qualify for federal reimbursement, it’s inevitable that poorer kids cannot partake of those “cooler” snack bar foods, a result which sometimes causes enough shame that kids would rather go hungry than be seen in (or even have their picture taken in) the “uncoool” food line.  In a district in which over 80% of our kids qualify for free or reduced price lunch, this is no small concern.

Last year, the food/nutrition subcommittee of HISD’s School Health Advisory Council (SHAC) (of which I am chairperson) decided to take a closer look at HISD’s “a la carte” foods, as well as the other competitive food on HISD campuses brought in by parents and students as fundraisers.  In February of this year we had the opportunity to present our views and recommendations at a Board Workshop, a presentation which seemed to have been well received.

Perhaps that  is why last week, as reported by the Houston Chronicle, HISD Trustee Juliet Stipeche raised vocal objections to HISD/Armark’s plan to purchase yet more of these sorts of junk foods for our children in the coming year.   At a subsequent Board meeting last week, both Stipeche and trustee Anna Eastman voted against inclusion of these items in Aramark’s budget.  While the Board ultimately overrode their objections, the courageous, public stance of these two trustees against junk food in HISD’s cafeterias was a very positive first step.

Equally encouraging is an editorial in today’s Houston Chronicle in which the newspaper itself comes out strongly in favor of eliminating a la carte for both the nutritional and stigma reasons discussed here.  Says the paper:

Why, in these cash-strapped days, would HISD spend so much money to put slushies in its cafeterias? Maybe it’s because the school district expects to turn a profit. The cost of serving those a la carte foods in the school cafeteria is lower than the price that kids pay to buy them. It disturbs us that the school district has a built-in incentive to push junk food. . . .

Earlier this year*, San Francisco’s school district voted to get rid of a la carte food service. We think Houston should do the same. The lunch options provided by a public school ought to be available to all its students. And they shouldn’t include blue slushies.

Could the age of the HISD-sanctioned slushie-and-nachos lunch be coming to an end?  Stay tuned.

* I believe San Francisco USD actually eliminated its a la carte lines in 2010.

[While I serve on HISD's Food Services Parent Advisory Committee and the district's School Health Advisory Council (SHAC), all views expressed here (and on The Lunch Tray) are entirely my own.]

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