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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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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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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Is Aramark Good for Houston ISD School Food?

Yesterday’s New York Times Sunday Review section had a scathing critique of the growing privatization of school food through the hiring of food service management companies (FSMCs) such as Aramark, Sodexo and Chartwells.

Written by Lucy Komisar and entitled “How the Food Industry Eats Your Kid’s Lunch,” the piece points out FSMCs “cozy relationship” with major food manufacturers like Tyson, ConAgra and Pilgrim’s, in which districts pay these companies substantial fees to turn whole commodity foods provided free by the federal government (such as fruits, potatoes and raw poultry) into highly processed, far less nutritious foods (French fries, chicken nuggets, etc.).   Komisar reports that in return many FSMCs receive financial rebates from processors (which FSMCs are legally required to pass on to districts, although some have been fined heavily for failing to do so) or “prompt payment discounts,” which Komisar says “are really rebates under another name.”  (FMSC rebates have been discussed several times previously on The Lunch Tray, when I pointed readers to good reporting on the issue by school food blogger Ed Bruske.)

It’s a commonly held belief that FSMCs save school districts money, primarily by reducing labor costs.  (Here in Houston, organized labor was vehemently opposed to the hiring of Aramark by then-superintendent Rod Paige in 1997.)   And use of food processors is one way those costs are reduced:  it obviously takes more and better skilled labor to prepare and cook potentially dangerous raw proteins like whole chicken parts than it does to simply heat up fully cooked nuggets from Tyson.  (This trade-off was examined in further detail in The Lunch Tray’s recent coverage of a landmark purchase of raw chicken parts by Chicago Public Schools.)

But Komisar, citing a study conducted by Roland Zullo at the University of Michigan, questions the notion that FSMCs (and, implicitly, their heavy reliance on processed foods) save schools money.  The Zullo study, from 2008, looked at various costs associated with school food including transportation, labor, food costs, and supplies and found that Michigan schools using FSMCs spent less on labor and food but more money on fees to the FSMC and on supplies, resulting in “no substantive economic savings.”

That finding that runs counter to popularly held beliefs about FSMCs, supposedly models of efficiency, and, indeed, Zullo found that when school district officials were simply asked about cost savings, many were under the impression that their FSMC was saving their district money, even when that was not the case.  On the other hand, it’s also important to remember that such cost/benefit analyses are likely to be highly district-specific, as labor (and other) costs can be significantly greater in one geographic area than in another.

Yet the Zullo study raises important questions, ones which should be answered in any district using a FSMC.  Here in HISD, for example, I wonder whether anyone has recently evaluated whether using Aramark is in fact saving the district money — not compared to the way Food Services was operated back in 1997, but as currently compared to comparable urban districts that are self-operating.  What percentage of HISD’s government commodities are being sent to food processors, and how much are we paying in processing fees?  Do those processing fees, along with Aramark’s yearly management fee and any increased costs for disposable serving supplies (which, according to the Zullo study, may be needed with fewer workers on a serving line) outweigh likely savings in labor costs and food procurement?

And finally, but most importantly, even if the district is saving money by retaining Aramark, is it true, as Komisar says, that we are doing so at the expense of food quality — and, therefore, our students’ health?

I don’t have these answers and I’m certainly not condemning Aramark’s performance in HISD based on Komisar’s piece.  But I do think these are important questions that need to be asked, and I’ll be contacting both our school board members and Food Services for more information.

I’ll let you know what I’m able to find out.

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