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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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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A Follow-Up to the Infamous “Cheetos-and-Nacho-Sauce” Photo

In my first post on this blog I shared a rather shocking photo of one child’s recent “lunch” in an HISD cafeteria: bright red, baked Flaming Hot Cheetos doused with nacho cheese sauce.  I didn’t want to kick off The Spork Report on such a negative note, but that photo conveyed better than any words my longstanding concern about some of the foods sold by HISD to our kids.

So I decided to go ahead and post the photo in an effort to start a conversation.  And in the past three weeks there has been a lot of discussion of those now-infamous red Cheetos — in the blogosphere, in private emails to me, and even among some HISD school officials.  It seemed worthwhile, therefore, to loop back to clarify some points which may be causing confusion and to raise some additional questions for your consideration.

Was that concoction actually an entree served by HISD?  

HISD, mercifully, is not putting on its menu a mixture of Cheetos and melted cheese sauce and calling it lunch.  While I thought I made this clear in the body of my post, a few readers seemed confused, so let me reiterate:  the chips and nacho sauce in the photo were not offered to kids on the lunch line, but were instead purchased separately by the child from the district’s “a la carte” menu and mixed together by him/her at the table.

What do you mean by “a la carte” foods?

A la carte foods are items sold by the district entirely apart from (and in actual competition with) the federally subsidized school meal as a money-making venture.  You can see a complete list of what HISD sells a la carte here, along with some 2010-11 nutritional information here.

Are there any nutritional standards for the a la carte foods sold by HISD?

HISD Food Services has voluntarily adopted for its a la carte foods the nutritional standards imposed on schools meeting the Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge.  Under these guidelines, items like the Baked Flaming Hot Cheetos in the photo are acceptable.

So, if HISD is already meeting nutritional standards, what’s your problem?

Well, first let’s take a closer look at some of these a la carte foods.  In addition to the Baked Flaming Hot Cheetos, our district also makes available to our kids items like Froot Loops, Corn Pops, Rice Krispies treats, chili cheese dogs, fried chicken sandwiches, pizza slices, beef taco nachos, Frito pie, four varieties of Doritos, quarter pound cheeseburgers, and sliders.  To meet the aforementioned nutritional guidelines, these foods generally have to be doctored in some way, like baking the Cheetos and Doritos instead of frying them or reducing portion size.  But while these foods might be “less bad” for you, you’d be hard-pressed to find a dietician or health professional who would recommend them as a regular part of a growing child’s diet.

More important, however, is the fact that the vast majority of HISD students are unaware of these nutritional modifications; to our children, there’s little difference between HISD’s beef taco nachos (which, I believe, use reduced-fat cheese and baked chips) and the beef taco nachos they get off campus (except for the fact that the latter may taste better).   The result?  Our schools are implicitly telling kids that it’s perfectly OK to eat these sorts of “carnival foods” every single day — even in an era in which one in three children are already overweight or obese — and many of our students are doing just that.

But nutritional considerations are not my only objection to our a la carte food.  Here are a few more issues to consider, topics I hope to discuss in more detail in future Spork Report posts:

  • Selling a la carte items like burgers and pizza creates an economic incentive to offer the same types of foods on the federally reimbursable menu.  Just take a look at HISD’s high school menu and you’ll see what I mean:  a monotonous array of pizza, burgers, and mostly fried-item sandwiches, day after day after day.
  • Parents often have little or no oversight over their children’s a la carte purchases and, indeed, many are shocked when they visit a school cafeteria and see the foods being made available to their children.
  • The sale of a la carte foods like the ones described above conflicts markedly with any nutrition education our children may receive as part of the school curriculum.  The school talks the talk in the classroom but walks an entirely different walk in the cafeteria.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, offering two separate options for school food – the federal school meal program and an a la carte menu — has been shown to create painful stigma among kids who must, for financial reasons, rely on the school meal.  (Indeed, it’s well documented that some of these children will choose to go hungry rather than be seen buying the “uncool” federal meal.)  In a district like ours, in which over 80% of our students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, this is a matter of real concern.

So, is there any alternative to selling a la carte foods?

Yes.  Some districts (and some states) have simply done away with a la carte altogether.  San Francisco USD (which offers no a la carte food in its cafeterias) imposes a “no empty calories” standard to food sold in vending machines, so that “slightly less bad for you” junk food like the Baked Flaming Hot Cheetos simply can’t be sold.

There may well be a negative financial impact to discontinuing the sale of a la carte junk foods.  In SFUSD, for example, the school board has in the past contributed funds to cover a food services shortfall; in an era of steep budget cuts, that’s a hard pill to swallow.  But to turn the question around, we have to ask ourselves:  is it ever OK to raise revenue at the expense of our children’s health?

In the end, what is HISD’s “food philosophy?”

Ultimately, the issue of a la carte touches on the larger philosophical question of how we want to feed the children in our district,* both in the a la carte line and in the reimbursable meal line.   Are we content to continue to offer the “doctored junk foods” that are popular with kids but which may contribute to obesity now — and which seem very likely to engender lifelong poor eating habits?

HISD Food Services, in recently adopting a mission statement proclaiming its desire to become “a leader in child nutrition and wellness by providing the highest level of nutrition possible on our campuses,” seems to want to do better.  And at the elementary level (where much less a la carte food is sold), we’re already seeing promising movement in the right direction, including more whole grain offerings, more fresh fruit, the introduction of salad bars and a more varied menu.  (More on all of that to come in future Spork Report posts.)

The question is whether the district is willing to do right by our middle and high school students as well.  Is it willing to greatly improve the a la carte menu — or even ditch it altogether?  Are we willing to take a chance that even older students might eat something other than a burger or a slice of pizza?  Or are we writing these older kids off as a lost cause?

And finally, a word to HISD Food Services

As soon as I posted the Cheetos-and-nacho-sauce photo three weeks ago, I feared I’d dealt an unfair blow to the many well-meaning, talented and committed school food professionals working in our district.  Through my membership on the HISD Food Services Parent Advisory Committee, I’ve gotten to know some of these men and women over the last year and a half, and I recognize the significant hurdles they face in trying to feed over 200,000 kids a day, many from impoverished backgrounds, on a limited budget and under strict governmental regulations.

One child’s Cheetos-and-nacho-sauce lunch is hardly representative of every meal served in our district, or even the majority of HISD meals, and it was never my intent to imply otherwise.  But it is my goal to reach the day when no child in HISD can call that utterly non-nutritive concoction “lunch” and be able to say that the district itself provided him or her with the means to do so.

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*Some Spork Report readers have taken issue with the very notion of the federal government being in the business of feeding children, believing this to be solely a parental responsibility.  My view is this:  the National School Lunch Program has been in existence since the 1940’s and it isn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future.  So rather than getting into “Nanny State” debates about the proper role of government, my focus on this blog will always be purely pragmatic; if the school lunch program is here to stay, let’s talk about how to make it better.