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.]

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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.]

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.]

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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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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