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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Are School Soda Bans Useless?

A recent study reported yesterday by the New York Times Well blog indicates they may be.

The study, published in this week’s The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicinelooked at the sugary drink consumption of 7,000 fifth and eighth graders over a three-year period and its first conclusion isn’t so surprising:  when schools banned only soda but not other sugary drinks, sugary beverage purchases on campus did not drop as compared to schools with no beverage ban at all.

This points up the hollowness of a soda-only ban, which is what we now have here in Houston ISD; under our “pouring rights” contract with Coca-Cola, our middle and high school students can still purchase Minute Maid fruit drinks and Powerade from vending machines on campus.

It was the study’s second finding that was really discouraging.  On campuses where all sugary beverages were banned, students’ access to the beverages understandably dropped but their overall consumption of sugary drinks remained the same, implying that they were simply getting their sugary drinks off campus in the same quantities.

[One thing worth noting:  the study looked at the period between 2004 – 2007, when many districts were first instituting soda bans.  I’d like to say the age of the data casts doubt on the findings, but there’s no evidence that I know of to support the notion that kids’ soda and sugary beverage consumption has gone down in the last four or five years.]

The finding that kids will get their sugary drinks regardless of a school ban only points up the degree to which childhood obesity is a deeply complex problem, and one which isn’t entirely the school’s responsibility .   As I wrote in my comment on the Well blog post:

. . . . there’s only so much one can do at school to address the multi-faceted problem of childhood obesity. It’s home + school + marketing/media + lack of exercise + widespread availability of cheap, caloric foods. Each one of those pieces of the puzzle needs to be addressed . . . .

But as another Well commenter named Susan pointed out, there’s an equally important reason to ditch sugary beverages in schools:

There is something to be said for taking the moral high ground, even if it doesn’t reduce total sugar consumption. Setting an example is also important.

I couldn’t agree more.

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