Do HISD Parents Know They Can Opt Out of “First Class Breakfast?”

Over on today’s The Lunch Tray I ponder this question: do universal in-class breakfast programs like HISD’s “First Class Breakfast” inadvertently contribute to childhood obesity, even as they seek to alleviate childhood hunger?

Just last week I was talking to some Houston public schools moms (from more affluent neighborhoods) who were complaining that their children have been “double dipping” every morning.  That is, they eat a perfectly satisfactory breakfast at home and then go off to school where they eat some or all of the in-class breakfast offered for free by our district.

A few days later, I saw this report in the New York Times which indicates that NYC’s City Council is slowing the roll-out of that city’s universal, in-class breakfast program for precisely the same reason:

 The city’s health department hit the pause button after a study found that the Breakfast in the Classroom program, now used in 381 of the city’s 1,750 schools, was problematic because some children might be “inadvertently taking in excess calories by eating in multiple locations” — in other words, having a meal at home, or snacking on the way to school, then eating again in school.

At the same time, though, I do believe that our First Class Breakfast program serves legitimate needs in HISD, a district in which over 80% of kids qualify for free or reduced price lunch.  Even despite concerns about food waste, sanitation problems, lost instructional time, and the quality of the food served, I’m told that principals at less affluent Houston schools enthusiastically laud the program, citing increased attendance, reduced tardiness and fewer discipline problems.  Those are real benefits that shouldn’t be dismissed.

But the goals of alleviating childhood hunger without contributing to childhood obesity can peacefully co-exist.  At my child’s HISD elementary school, our principal offers parents the option to have their child’s breakfast card removed from the stack of available meal cards; without the card, no breakfast can be obtained.  And if the parent changes his or her mind on a given day, he or she can send a signed note to that effect and a meal will be served.

But what’s troubled me for some time is how rarely this solution seems to be employed across HISD.  On an admittedly anecdotal basis, I’ve been told by many parents that the choice to opt their children out of breakfast has never been offered to them by their respective principals.  And the district has done nothing (of which I’m aware) to make the option widely known to the public.

And that leads to the question of money.  School food service departments generally welcome universal breakfast programs because they bring in more federal reimbursement dollars, particularly in districts like ours with large numbers of children in economic need.  As the Food Research and Action Center noted in a a comprehensive report on school breakfast:

If states could increase participation so they reach 60 children with breakfast for every 100 that also eat lunch, FRAC estimates that an additional 2.4 million low-income children would be added to the breakfast program and states would have received an additional $583 million in child nutrition funding.

Thus, districts with in-class breakfast programs have an economic incentive to serve as many meals as possible, regardless of whether some meals are being served to kids who have no need for it — and whose parents would greatly prefer they not partake of it.

I’m going to inquire further about the implementation of the opt-out option and will report back here.  In the meantime, I’d be curious to hear from HISD parents about whether you’ve ever been informed by your school that you can opt your child out of the breakfast program, and how you generally feel about First Class Breakfast now that the program has been in place for some time.

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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.]

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A Welcome Goodbye to Animal Crackers at Breakfast?

When I was once asked by Slow Food USA to explain why I started my daily blog about kids and food, The Lunch Tray, I realized that a packet of animal crackers played no small part in the decision.

I was attending my very first HISD Food Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting in February 2010, just as the First Class Breakfast program was being fully rolled out across the district at the direction of Superintendent Terry Grier.  There was a lot of concern among parents at the meeting (and throughout HISD) about some of the items on that initial breakfast menu, including brightly hued Trix yogurt, shrink-wrapped, processed maple-flavored waffles, and packets of animal crackers.

When I asked HISD’s then-head dietician about the animal crackers specifically, she said they were added to the menu to meet the USDA’s iron requirements for school breakfasts (via the fortification of the flour) as well as its high calorie requirements (via the sugar).  I was so appalled by a system (called the “nutrient standard” method of meal planning) that would lead to this bizarre result that I began to learn as much as I could about the federal school meal program.  Eventually I wanted to share that knowledge via a blog and The Lunch Tray was born.

When I revisited the animal cracker issue on The Lunch Tray back in August, 2010, I was told by the district, to my relief, that they were going to be phased out of HISD’s breakfast program in the fall of last year.  (And, indeed, if you look at the current published HISD breakfast menus — here, here and here— animal crackers are nowhere to be found.)

But a few days ago my daughter happened to mention seeing them every day at breakfast in her middle school and she brought home a packet to show me.  Concerned, I contacted Brian Giles, Senior Administrator of Food Services, to find out what was going on.  He wrote:

Our commitment was to eliminate the fortified crackers from the elementary breakfast menu.  That has definitely happened.  The item is approved for a la carte during the lunch period. . . .

Due to higher calorie and iron requirements for middle school age groups, the item is still offered as part of the breakfast menu at that level.

Regarding the calorie/iron conundrum, here are some solutions we have been working on:

1)  We will be moving from “nutrient standard” menu planning to “food based” menu planning next year.  This menu planning approach has lower, more realistic calorie standards.  It will also allow us to increase the variety of food groups offered on a given menu.  Because of lower calorie requirements, we could eliminate the menu need for items like the animal crackers (which are a good source of iron and calories).

2)  In our current “Select Items” bid, we are seeking additional breakfast items that are high in iron and meet calorie requirements.  Bid responses will be tabulated in December and we could see these new items on menus as early as February, replacing the need for a cracker item.

When I asked Brian why animal crackers were being served without appearing on the middle school menu, he wrote:

I checked the online menus and it looks like we have a typo that says “cereal assortment” every day.  We will change the online menu so it is accurate.

When I pressed him to find out how long the typo had been appearing, he added:

As far as we can tell, the typo stretches back to last spring’s online menus.  Certainly no intention to mislead the public.  It was simply a data entry error in the process between menu creation and menu publication that we didn’t catch.  Thanks a lot for bringing it to my attention.

I take Brian at his word, of course, and mistakes can happen to anyone.  But it disturbs me that any food item (and particularly one that had been the subject of some controversy) was being served to students for so long without the knowledge of HISD parents.

At any rate, I personally will be very pleased when our schools are no longer offering what are, in the end, cookies, to HISD middle schoolers every morning.  Nutrition aside (these particular animal crackers do contain some whole grain), this seems like a terrible message to be sending our students about sound food choices, particularly in an age of rampant childhood obesity.

I’ll keep you posted here.
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