HISD To Receive Twenty-One New Salad Bars this Fall

Earlier this year I told you about a visit to one of HISD’s three salad bars (aka “Fresh Express fruit and veggie carts”), this one located at Highland Heights Elementary.

As reported in that post, HISD Food Services stocks these carts not with traditional “salad” ingredients (like lettuce and croutons) but instead offers more kid-friendly crudité such as cucumber slices, baby carrots, broccoli florets, whole apples, canned diced pears, whole pears, canned apricot halves, canned peaches, oranges, pineapple and whole bananas.  Each month, one of these foods is also part of HISD’s new “Harvest of the Month” program, highlighting Texas-grown produce.

The fruit and veggie cart at Highland Heights Elementary

I’m pleased to report that this fall HISD will be getting twenty-one new fruit and veggie carts, made available to HISD through a variety of donors:  the Houston Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, HBO/Whole Foods Foundation, Chiquita/Fresh Express, and the United Fresh Foundation.

The district hasn’t yet determined which schools will be receiving a fruit and veggie cart but I’ll share that information here when it becomes available.

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Houston ISD Confirms It Does Not Serve “Pink Slime;” An Update on National Developments

In response to growing concern among Houston parents regarding the use of Lean Beef Trimmings, aka “pink slime,” in school food ground beef, Houston ISD released today the following statement:

Alll HISD ground beef suppliers have confirmed this week that they do not use lean finely textured beef.

Houston Independent School District officials contacted the suppliers soon after concerns were raised about lean finely textured beef, also known as pink slime. As of Wednesday afternoon, each vendor had supplied HISD with written documentation confirming they have not sent the district any of the controversial products.  In addition, HISD officials have inspected about $800,000 worth of frozen ground beef stored at the district’s food services facility and confirmed it does not contain lean finely textured beef.

In the future, HISD will decline to purchase any products that contain lean finely textured beef.

Meanwhile, here is a long overdue update on the Change.org petition started on March 6th on my main blog, The Lunch Tray, asking USDA to cease providing schools with ground beef containing LBT.

As of today, sixteen days later, there are close to one-quarter of a million signatures in support of the petition.  On the ninth day of the petition, USDA announced that it would change its policy and allow districts to opt out of purchasing beef containing LBT.  Since then, school districts around the country have either indicated that they will no longer purchase beef with the cheap filler or they have affirmed that they were not using LBT in the first place.

As of yesterday, many of the largest supermarket chains in the country have disavowed use of LBT.  The chains include Safeway (the country’s second largest, after Kroger), Food Lion and Supervalu (the third largest, operating Acme, Albertsons, Cub Foods, Farm Fresh, Hornbacher’s, Jewel-Osco, Lucky, Shaw’s/Star Market, Shop ‘n Save and Shoppers Food & Pharmacy).  Walmart and Sam’s Club stores will begin offering beef without LBT, while Kroger has issued a statement regarding which of its ground beef offerings are free of LBT and will provide this information to its meat departments.

For more information, visit ABC News’s website.  You can also see me interviewed about the matter on ABC World News here.

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HISD “Nudges” Kids Toward Healthier Lunch Room Choices

At our last HISD Food Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting we had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Karen Webber Cullen, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, about an innovative program she’s overseeing to encourage HISD students to make healthier food choices.

Using a $175,000 research grant from USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, Dr. Cullen is conducting a pilot study in six Houston elementary schools to determine if gentle, low- or no-cost “nudges” can positively influence student food choices in the lunch room.  Specifically, students at these six schools are currently receiving the following prompts to select fruits and vegetables in the cafeteria:

  • Food service workers at participating schools are trained to encourage children to select the target foods.
  • Signage in English and Spanish is added to the lunch line so children know what the target foods are.
  • Teachers integrate messages about the target foods in their classrooms using, for example, writing prompts about them.
  • Information about the program overall and about the featured foods is communicated to parents in the school newsletter and sent home in children’s backpacks.

Dr. Cullen will determine in May whether children at these schools consumed a higher-than-average amount of fruits and vegetables — a likely result, in my opinion.  She’ll be sharing her data in a report and I’ll post the information here when it’s available.

[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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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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