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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Will Armark and Houston ISD Soon Be Parting Ways? And If So, Then What?

Two days ago, I wrote a post here on The Spork Report entitled, “Is Aramark Good For Houston ISD School Food?” which discussed a recent op-ed in the New York Times criticizing the privatization of school food through the hiring of food service management companies (FSMCs) like Aramark, Sodexo and Chartwells.  FSMCs, according to the Times piece, are financially motivated (sometimes involving illegal “rebates”) to use food processors like Tyson and ConAgra to turn free federal commodity food, like whole chicken parts, flour and potatoes, into far less nutritious chicken nuggets, frozen pizza and French fries.  The op-ed also cited a 2008 University of Michigan study which cast doubt on the commonly held belief that FSMCs are cost efficient and save school districts money.

Interestingly enough, yesterday the Texas Watchdog site reported that our own FSMC, Aramark, may be on the ropes here in Houston ISD:

Senior Houston schools officials are considering terminating the district’s agreement with Aramark after they say the Philadelphia-based food-services company incurred a loss of $1.9 million in district taxpayer money – a contract violation.

According to Texas Watchdog, the shortfall was incurred during the 2011 fiscal year, despite the fact that Aramark had previously told HISD that it could expect a $1.1 million surplus.  Efforts to negotiate a settlement with Aramark have reached an impasse and, according to the report, HISD spokesperson Jason Spencer has said that the district is reconsidering ending the Aramark contract when it is up for rebidding next year.

What all this means for the future of school food in our district remains to be seen.  If the school board chooses not to renew Aramark’s contract but continues to favor the idea of privatizing Food Services, we’ll simply watch as another FSMC like Chartwells (which has in the past unsuccessfully bid on the HISD contract) steps into Aramark’s shoes.  And while Chartwells has been praised in some districts for school food improvements (e.g., recently working with outside entities in Chicago Public Schools to make a landmark purchase of antibiotic-free, whole chicken parts), DC public school food blogger Ed Bruske published last spring a damning critique of Chartwells’ performance in his own district (“DC Schools Food Director Calls Chartwells Contract ‘Crap'”).  The ever-present concern with any FSMC, of course, is the degree to which the company’s profit motive  leads to more cheap, highly processed foods and more popular but nutritionally questionable “a la carte” foods appearing on lunch trays, to the detriment of student health and learning.

So if Aramark is indeed on its way out, it’s my fervent hope that our superintendent and our school board officials will proceed carefully before making any decisions about the future of Food Services in HISD.

Let’s first find out what a self-operated department would look like and cost.  Let’s find out the financial impact of really diversifying and improving our menus in a meaningful way –particularly at the high school and middle school levels.  Let’s examine whether we could follow the lead of forward-thinking districts like San Francisco USD by getting rid of our “a la carte” lines entirely, so that all kids can get a balanced meal (instead of grabbing nachos and a slushie and calling it lunch) and no Houston kid gets his picture put on Facebook to shame him for eating in the “poor kids” line.

Because while piecemeal improvements are being made in our district — salad bars at three pilot schools, new dining concepts in some high schools (on which I’ll be reporting soon) and improvements to our elementary menus — I do feel we have a long way to go.  Just last week, I saw first hand many students taking a monochromatic lunch that looked like this:

With a beverage that looked like this:

How do these photos square with our district’s own school food mission statement?

Our Nutrition Mission:  “Houston ISD will be a leader in child nutrition and wellness by providing the highest level of nutrition possible on our campuses, by providing comprehensive nutrition and wellness education, and by engaging the entire HISD community to teach our children the benefits of making healthy choices.”

We owe it to our district’s children — one third of whom are already on the path toward a life shortened by heart disease and diabetes — to try harder.

The looming question is whether our district is willing to invest the money that may be required to take its own mission statement from platitude to reality.

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Yes, More on Those Cheetos (And the News May Not Be Good)

My first post on this blog contained a disturbing photo of one child’s meal in HISD: baked Flaming Hot Cheetos covered with nacho sauce, items the student purchased separately in his/her middle school cafeteria’s “a la carte” line and mixed together for his/her lunch:

hot fries and nacho cheese

I chose to lead off with this topic because I’ve long been concerned about the nutritional quality of the foods HISD offers to students for profit, in competition with the federally subsidized school meal, on the district’s a la carte lines.

Shortly after that post was published, an alarmed school board trustee contacted Brian Giles, Senior Administrator of Food Services, to express concern and obtain more information about the foods in the photograph.  In his response (to which I was later given access), Giles reassured the school board trustee:

The picture features “queso” sauce made at the Food Service Support Facility and some baked snacks.  These items, as well as all items approved for “a la carte” sale at schools, individually meet standards for Calories, Fat, Sugar, and Sodium as defined by the HealthierUS School Challenge.  These voluntary nutrition standards exceed current standards mandated by USDA for all school districts.

Based on this representation, I told Spork Report readers the same thing in my follow up report about a la carte, i.e., that all of HISD’s a la carte foods — including these two particular items (which I had made clear in my original post were purchased in a middle school) — comply with the HealthierUS Schools Challenge (“HUSSC”) standards.

Some time later, though, I remembered that there are gold, silver and bronze standards under the HUSSC and I wondered which standard our district is meeting.   But when I asked a representative of Food Services about this, now I was told:

Our elementary a la carte offerings meet the HealthierUS Schools Challenge Gold Standard.  For now, at the middle and high school level, we are working with schools on an individual basis who want to make changes.

This response directly contradicted what the school board member had been told by Giles and what I had subsequently told Spork Report readers – i.e., that HISD is meeting healthier a la carte standards across the board, regardless of grade level.

Taken aback by this development, I decided to do some investigating on my own.  I obtained from Frito-Lay’s website the nutritional information for the baked Flaming Hot Cheetos in the photo

and I then plugged that data into the HUSSC a la carte foods calculator.  To my surprise, the baked Cheetos were rejected by the calculator for containing an excessive amount of fat:

What’s particularly disturbing here is that these baked Cheetos (at least according to my own elementary-aged child) are also sold at the elementary school level.  So even where HISD is supposed to be meeting the HUSSC gold standard, the district is not in fact doing so, at least with respect to this particular product.

I raised all of the foregoing concerns with Brian Giles and he promised to have his nutrition team “re-analyze all our a la carte offerings as compared to HealthierUS School Challenge” and get back to me shortly.  I’ll share what I learn here.

Why is any of this important?   Because until we see what forthcoming national nutritional standards for a la carte foods look like, or until HISD SHAC-based efforts to improve a la carte standards in our district reach fruition, there clearly are children like the one in the photo who are making an entire meal out of these foods.  In a district which strives to offer “the highest level of nutrition possible on our campuses,” meeting the HUSSC standards for every a la carte item it sells — across the board and at every grade level — would be a big step in the right direction.

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When Flaming Hot Cheetos + Nacho Cheese = HISD School Lunch

In the last year I’ve participated in two or three “Nutrition Strategy” meetings held by HISD Food Services, sessions which convene stakeholders from the district, the parent community, the public health profession, the urban gardening movement and elsewhere to discuss our district’s school food.  One of our first tasks was to draft a new mission statement for HISD Food Services, a statement which now routinely appears on the department’s emails and communications material:

Our Nutrition Mission:  “Houston ISD will be a leader in child nutrition and wellness by providing the highest level of nutrition possible on our campuses, by providing comprehensive nutrition and wellness education, and by engaging the entire HISD community to teach our children the benefits of making healthy choices.”

I do believe HISD is working toward these goals and it was my intention to start this blog off on a positive note by sharing news of some of those good developments.  But last week I received a tweet that gave me serious pause.  It was a photograph of one child’s “lunch” in an HISD middle school cafeteria — bright red, baked Flaming Hot Cheetos (aka “hot fries”) covered with processed nacho cheese sauce.

hot fries and nacho cheeseJust to be clear, this was not a lunch brought by the child from home, nor was it purchased by the child off campus.  This “lunch” consisted of foods offered to our children by the district itself, motivated entirely by profit.

As readers of The Lunch Tray know, I appreciate the financial and logistical obstacles facing any school district operating under the National School Lunch Program, and I believe my expectations for what can be achieved in terms of school food reform are realistic.  I’m not one of those parents who insists that school food must be organic, locally-sourced, grass-fed, fair trade and sustainable.  All of that would be great, to be sure, and I hope we see such food on lunch trays in the future.  But for now my goals are more modest:  just more freshly prepared food, more whole foods, fewer highly processed and chemically-preserved entrees, and a more varied menu, particularly at the middle and high school levels, so we don’t teach our kids it’s OK to eat pizza and burgers five days a week, week in and week out.

And when it comes to the district’s “a la carte” lines, which is where the child above obtained his or her bright orange “lunch,” I’d like HISD to take seriously its mission to offer “the highest level of nutrition possible.”  As San Francisco school food reformer Dana Woldow once put it on The Lunch Tray, products like Reduced Fat Doritos. Baked Flaming Hot Cheetos, and 100 calorie Rice Krispies bars are “better for you” “in the sense that it is ‘better for you’ to be hit on the head with a brick only twice instead of three times.”  Clearly such foods are not offering the “highest level of nutrition” possible, but as long as they’re sold in our lunch rooms, kids like the one above will make an entire meal out of them — to the detriment of their own health and their ability to learn effectively in the classroom.

As the chairperson of the nutrition committee of HISD’s School Health Advisory Council (SHAC), I’m working with a dedicated group of parents and public health professionals to  address the issue of a la carte foods in HISD — both the items sold by the district itself (like the Flaming Hot Cheetos above) and items sold by parent and student groups (usually in violation of state rules) as campus fundraisers.  I’ll keep you abreast of our progress here on The Spork Report.

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