Houston ISD Confirms It Does Not Serve “Pink Slime;” An Update on National Developments

In response to growing concern among Houston parents regarding the use of Lean Beef Trimmings, aka “pink slime,” in school food ground beef, Houston ISD released today the following statement:

Alll HISD ground beef suppliers have confirmed this week that they do not use lean finely textured beef.

Houston Independent School District officials contacted the suppliers soon after concerns were raised about lean finely textured beef, also known as pink slime. As of Wednesday afternoon, each vendor had supplied HISD with written documentation confirming they have not sent the district any of the controversial products.  In addition, HISD officials have inspected about $800,000 worth of frozen ground beef stored at the district’s food services facility and confirmed it does not contain lean finely textured beef.

In the future, HISD will decline to purchase any products that contain lean finely textured beef.

Meanwhile, here is a long overdue update on the Change.org petition started on March 6th on my main blog, The Lunch Tray, asking USDA to cease providing schools with ground beef containing LBT.

As of today, sixteen days later, there are close to one-quarter of a million signatures in support of the petition.  On the ninth day of the petition, USDA announced that it would change its policy and allow districts to opt out of purchasing beef containing LBT.  Since then, school districts around the country have either indicated that they will no longer purchase beef with the cheap filler or they have affirmed that they were not using LBT in the first place.

As of yesterday, many of the largest supermarket chains in the country have disavowed use of LBT.  The chains include Safeway (the country’s second largest, after Kroger), Food Lion and Supervalu (the third largest, operating Acme, Albertsons, Cub Foods, Farm Fresh, Hornbacher’s, Jewel-Osco, Lucky, Shaw’s/Star Market, Shop ‘n Save and Shoppers Food & Pharmacy).  Walmart and Sam’s Club stores will begin offering beef without LBT, while Kroger has issued a statement regarding which of its ground beef offerings are free of LBT and will provide this information to its meat departments.

For more information, visit ABC News’s website.  You can also see me interviewed about the matter on ABC World News here.

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Update on Pink Slime Petition: 5 Days, 134,000 Signatures

For those of you who don’t follow my main blog, The Lunch Tray, I wanted to update you on the Change.org petition started there last Tuesday (and discussed here on The Spork Report on Wednesday) which asks USDA to cease use of so-called “pink slime” in school food.

As of this writing, the start of Day Five of the petition, it has garnered 134,000 signatures.

Photo of ground beef processing.

“Pink slime” so dominated the news last week that it became one of the top Google searches and also trended on Twitter.  (Spork Report readers wishing to follow the discussion on Twitter should use the hashtag #pinkslime.  My Twitter handle is @thelunchtray.)

In addition, the petition (and the issue of pink slime generally) were widely covered by the news media.  Here’s a short list of some of the many pieces mentioning the petition: The DailyYahoo News, the Washington PostFood Safety NewsMSNBCCBS News, OC WeeklyParenting and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Meanwhile, both USDA and Beef Products Inc. felt the need to issue statements about Lean Beef Trimmings (here and here) and there have also been some inevitable backlash pieces asking if the pink slime “panic” is justified.  You can read those and decide what you think.

Finally, I’m writing an op-ed about this issue for the Houston Chronicle which I’ll share when/if it’s published.  In the meantime, please do read Nancy Heuhnergarth’s excellent post on why pink slime, even if safe (and she’s not conceding that point), is troubling to many Americans.

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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.]

Using Social Media To Get “Pink Slime” Out of School Food

Over on my main blog, The Lunch Tray, I’m getting quite an education in the awesome power of social media.

On Monday, the online publication the Daily reported that the USDA has purchased ground beef for use in the National School Lunch Program containing, collectively, 7 million pounds of the substance commonly known as “pink slime.”  For those who aren’t familiar with pink slime, it’s a product (officially called “Lean Beef Trimmings”) produced Beef Products, Inc., a processing plant in South Dakota.  BPI injects a mixture of cooking oil and fatty beef trimmings (formerly used only for pet food and rendering, not human consumption) with ammonia hydroxide in an attempt to remove E. coli and salmonella.  (Because of where these scraps come from on the cow’s carcass, they’re more likely to be infected with pathogens than other meat.)

After a damning exposé of BPI’s practices by the New York Times in December, 2009, followed by a graphic demonstration of pink slime by Jamie Oliver on his “Food Revolution” show last summer, there has been growing consumer concern with the use of pink slime in food products.  For this reason, fast food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell have agreed to stop using it in their food.
I had written about pink slime on The Lunch Tray in 2010 (“One Burger, Please, Extra Ammonia and Hold the E Coli“) and thought at that time that the USDA had decided to out an end to its use in school food.  But I was obviously mistaken, as the Daily story made clear.
I was outraged by the fact that American school children are being fed a product of questionable safety — and which wasn’t even regarded as fit for human consumption in the recent past —  so I decided to start my very first Change.org petition about it.  I posted the link on The Lunch Tray Tuesday morning, shared it on Facebook and Twitter, and then left the house to go about my day.
You can imagine my surprise when, hours later, the petition had garnered over 600 signatures.  By late afternoon, it had reached 1,000.  As of this writing, almost 3,500 people have signed on — and the number goes up every few minutes.  In the meantime, I’ve been interviewed about this issue by Channel Two News here in Houston, the petition has been mentioned in the Washington Post blog, and requests for more interviews are coming in.
I’ve been so gratified by this overwhelming response and hope that Spork Report readers will consider signing and sharing the petition as well.  And if you’d like more information on why pink slime has no place on our kids’ lunch trays, be sure to check out this excellent article posted by Tom Philpott today.

Before signing off, I’d like to make clear that although this is an HISD school food blog, I have no knowledge of whether the meat served to Houston students contains pink slime.  Indeed, because the federal government doesn’t require its labeling on ground beef, it’s very hard for any district to know whether or not the beef it uses contains this substance.

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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 “Nudges” Kids Toward Healthier Lunch Room Choices

At our last HISD Food Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting we had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Karen Webber Cullen, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, about an innovative program she’s overseeing to encourage HISD students to make healthier food choices.

Using a $175,000 research grant from USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, Dr. Cullen is conducting a pilot study in six Houston elementary schools to determine if gentle, low- or no-cost “nudges” can positively influence student food choices in the lunch room.  Specifically, students at these six schools are currently receiving the following prompts to select fruits and vegetables in the cafeteria:

  • Food service workers at participating schools are trained to encourage children to select the target foods.
  • Signage in English and Spanish is added to the lunch line so children know what the target foods are.
  • Teachers integrate messages about the target foods in their classrooms using, for example, writing prompts about them.
  • Information about the program overall and about the featured foods is communicated to parents in the school newsletter and sent home in children’s backpacks.

Dr. Cullen will determine in May whether children at these schools consumed a higher-than-average amount of fruits and vegetables — a likely result, in my opinion.  She’ll be sharing her data in a report and I’ll post the information here when it’s available.

[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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SHAC To Address HISD Board Re: Competitive Foods

Tomorrow morning the HISD School Health Advisory Council will be speaking at an HISD Board Workshop to address, among other student health issues, the sale of “competitive” foods offered on HISD campuses.

Competitive foods include any food sold outside of (and therefore in competition with) the National School Lunch Program. This definition encompasses items from vending machines, items sold by students, parents and other groups to raise money (think: tables selling Chick-Fil-A, donuts, pizza, etc. at lunch on high school campuses, or the chips and candy offered in school stores) as well as foods sold by HISD itself on its “a la carte” or snack bar lines, such as Frito Pie, fried Clux Deluxe sandwiches, Cheese Chili Nachos, and slushies.

The SHAC is concerned that such foods, as a general matter, are nutritionally lacking and their sale is in direct conflict with the district’s stated goal that it be a “national leader in child nutrition and wellness among public school districts.”

I’ll report back here about the meeting after it takes place.

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HISD Undergoing Intensive School Food Audit This Week

HISD’s Food Services is undergoing this week a routine but intensive “Coordinated Review Effort” (or CRE), in which state and federal authorities will be evaluating all aspects of the district’s school meal program.

Auditors from USDA and the Texas Department of Agriculture will be reviewing 22 pre-selected HISD school lunch programs, ten breakfast programs, the district’s Fruit & Vegetable program and its afterschool snack program  The audit, which is conducted in HISD every two years, will include a review of the department’s financials, the accuracy with which it determines student eligibility for free or reduced price meals, and its actual operations: food preparation, food safety, compliance with nutritional standards, compliance with civil rights law and more.  If violations are found during the CRE, federal funding can be withheld from the district.

At our January Food Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting, representatives of Food Services reported to us that the department has been undergoing intensive preparation for the CRE, including conducting pre-audits and staff training where needed.  PAC members were also given a chance to conduct a “mock audit” at West University Elementary’s cafeteria, dividing into groups and examining various aspects of its meal service.

In other school food news, tomorrow First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will be announcing the long-awaited new school food nutritional standards promulgated as part of the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.  I’ll have news about that development on The Lunch Tray.
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A Positive School Food Story to Kick Off 2012

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.

Poe principal Jeff Amerson in the cafeteria.

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.

When I complimented Amerson on his oversight and involvement, he modestly demurred.  But then he looked around at the students in Poe’s cafeteria, almost half of whom qualify for free or reduced price lunch, and said, “These are my children.  They don’t always have someone to look out for them.  If I don’t do it, who will?”

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.

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