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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Parents Needed to Fill Openings on HISD’s Food Services Parent Advisory Committee

As I mention on The Spork Report’s About page, one of the ways in which I’m involved in school food reform efforts here in HISD is my participation in the district’s Food Services Parent Advisory Committee.

The PAC was set up by the district to obtain parent feedback and advice about school food menus.  (The district’s description of the committee and its mission is here).  I’ll be perfectly honest and say I’m never quite sure if the PAC is a real driver of change or if the menu improvements we’ve seen in the past year or so (and there have been many – details to follow in coming posts) were in the pipeline already.  But, either way, participation on the PAC allows you to meet in person with Food Services employees to discuss concerns and to get firsthand information about our school food.  The department is open to our questions and I’ve been impressed by how much time HISD Food Services employees are willing to devote to our meetings, which in the past have included tours of the central kitchen facility and menu tastings.

The PAC is supposed to have 45 members, five appointees from each of the nine school board trustees’ districts.  In reality, however, many of the appointee slots are unfilled, there is constant turnover among appointees, and only a core group of five to ten parents show up regularly to most meetings.  So if you’re a parent of a child in HISD and are interested in actively serving on the PAC (i.e., you’re willing and able to attend a meeting every month or two, during the daytime), consider contacting your school board trustee to apply.

Here is a list provided to me by HISD Food Services of the current open positions, listed by trustee name:  Galloway: four open slots; Stipeche: three open slots, Lunceford: three open slots; Meyers: one open slot; Eastman: no open slots; Moore: no open slots; Marshall: three open slots; Harris, one open slot; and Rodriguez, two open slots.

Casting Call: Would You Like to Be in a TV Documentary re: Childhood Obesity?

So, this is pretty exciting.

I’ve recently been in touch with producers of a forthcoming television documentary on childhood obesity and I was asked if I could help them find participants. I can’t share any specifics, but from my phone conversations I believe the program will not be cheap or exploitative in any way, and that your child’s (and your) story will be handled with sensitivity.

Here are the details:

An Emmy-award-winning team at a highly regarded TV company is looking for subjects for a documentary on childhood obesity. They are hoping to find the family of an overweight middle school or high school student that is concerned about their child’s weight and working to improve the healthfulness and quality of the food available in the school cafeteria, even if the parents and the school district are just getting started on this quest.They would like to speak with interested parents as soon as possible. Please email the producers at childhoodobesityfilm@gmail.com.

If you wind up submitting your story and getting chosen, do let me know!

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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Welcome to The Spork Report!

I’m a parent of two children in Houston ISD public schools, a former lawyer and a freelance writer. I care about improving school food, and the health of kids generally, so I serve on HISD’s Food Services Parent Advisory Committee as well as the district’s School Health Advisory Council (SHAC.)

Stemming out of my activities here in Houston, a year and a half ago I launched a widely-read daily blog, The Lunch Tray, devoted to ”kids and food, in school and out.”  (You can read more about The Lunch Tray here.)  The Lunch Tray is national both in scope and in the composition of its readership, but lately I’ve also wanted to focus on HISD school food specifically, providing interested parents with information on the latest developments in our district.

That’s why I created The Spork Report, an unofficial source for news and opinion about Houston ISD school food. The key word there is “unofficial:” I’m not in any way affiliated with the district, any views or comments I express here are entirely my own, and I take full responsibility for any inaccuracies in my reporting. My independence from the district means I’ll call the shots as I see them, criticizing HISD where I think it’s warranted and praising the district for steps taken in the right direction.

The Spork Report has its own Facebook page and Twitter feed and posts appear simultaneously on the Houston Chronicle‘s Chron.com website and on The Lunch Tray.  You can also subscribe to have Spork Report posts delivered directly to your email inbox.  My goal is to update the blog weekly, or more often as my schedule allows.

I appreciate reader comments and will do my best to respond to them. However, due to the significant time it takes me to publish and manage The Lunch Tray each day, comments on The Spork Report may sometimes go unanswered or may not be answered promptly. I appreciate your understanding. And if you do decide to comment, please be courteous. Per my legal policy, I reserve the right to delete comments for any reason, including tone and language, and I won’t hesitate to exercise that right to keep this a friendly forum.

Thanks for reading The Spork Report! I hope you find it informative.

– Bettina Elias Siegel