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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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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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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My Op-Ed in the Houston Chronicle re: HISD School Food Reform

In case you missed it, I had an op-ed in the Sunday edition of the Chronicle on school food in our district.  I urge our school officials to reconsider the outsourcing of HISD’s food to Aramark and to assess the feasibility of a self-operated food services department, with a return to more scratch cooking.

You can read the piece here.

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