Happy 2012, Spork Report readers! After a much-needed holiday break, I’m now resuming my at-least-once-a-week posting schedule here. And in keeping with my promise to share both the good and bad news about HISD school food, I thought I’d kick off the new year with a school food story that made me happy.
Late last year, a friend and fellow HISD School Health Advisory Council member told me about an issue with the food at her children’s school, Poe Elementary. Apparently the school’s principal, Jeff Amerson, was concerned about a particular entree on HISD’s elementary menu: kids were finding the sauce on the BBQ Chicken Tenders too vinegary and were leaving the food untouched on their trays, but since they’d already chosen their meal they couldn’t go back for a different entree. Amerson was concerned that kids were leaving the cafeteria hungry and asked HISD Food Services to rectify the problem.
I was, frankly, a little surprised that a principal was so on top of what was going on in his lunchroom. Most principals eat their lunches away from the cafeteria or go off-campus, taking what I’m sure is a much-needed break in their day. I’m guessing that few would be able to tell you about student complaints about a particular HISD entree.
But then I learned from my friend that Amerson actually eats the school food right alongside his students almost every single day. When an anonymous teacher in the Midwest (“Mrs. Q” of Fed Up with Lunch) did this, she deservedly got a book deal and an appearance on the Today show for her concern about the food in her school. But Amerson says he just finds it convenient to eat in Poe’s cafeteria and it’s clear from watching him that he genuinely likes to spend the extra time with his students.
Meanwhile, when learning of Amerson’s complaint about the entree, HISD Food Services didn’t just brush him off. Instead, the department sent HISD’s own Executive Chef, Steve Crisler, to come out to the school himself to assess the situation. I happened to see him there the day I was visiting Poe, busy in the kitchen with the on-site food service personnel to see why the sauce was unappealing to the kids and to try to rectify the problem.
The only sour note (no pun intended) in this otherwise heart-warming story is the BBQ Chicken Tender entree itself, which I mentioned in my recent Houston Chronicle op-ed about HISD school food. I tasted the dish while at Poe and the “tenders” seemed to be little more than pre-made, par-fried chicken nuggets (no doubt manufactured by an outside poultry processor) and I believe HISD’s sole contribution to the dish is to coat the nuggets in sauce. As I said in the op-ed, it would be nice to see less highly processed food of this sort on our kids’ lunch trays, perhaps instead using our USDA commodity dollars to buy whole chicken drumsticks that we could prepare with barbecue sauce in the district’s state-of-the-art central kitchen.
But putting that issue aside, I wanted to share with you the obvious concern and proactive responses on both sides of the equation in this story – an involved school principal and Food Services working to better serve HISD students. There are other ways, too, in which a school principal can have a positive impact on his or her school’s food, even in a district of our size. For example, I’m currently looking into stories about individual school principals who have asked Food Services to simply stop sending to their campuses foods and beverages to which they object, like daily chocolate milk or the ubiquitous “a la carte” chips and ice cream. More on that in a forthcoming Spork Report.