Join Me Tomorrow for a Panel on School Food

In honor of Food Day later this month, Urban Harvest is hosting a series of events tomorrow which are likely to be of interest to Spork Report readers.

Starting at 4:30-5:30 pm at John H. Reagan High School, the Reagan Eco Club will lead a series of tours of the school’s Urban Harvest garden.  Then from 5:00-6:15pm in Reagan’s Teaching Theater there will be a screening of the documentary, “What’s on Your Plate?” (reviewed here).  And from 6:30-7:30, I hope you’ll join me for a panel discussion on the topic “School Lunch Updates” with panelists Brian Giles, Senior Administrator of HISD/Aramark Food Services; HISD trustee Juliet Stipeche; Recipe for Success‘s Gracie Cavnar; Christine Sullivan of Revolution Foods; and myself.  The panel will be moderated by Beverly Gor of Can Do Houston.

Reagan’s gardens are located on the corner of Arlington & 14th streets, and parking at the high school is available on Arlington or in the downstairs garage.

I hope to see some of you tomorrow!

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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.]

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 . . . .

Follow The Spork Report on Facebook, Twitter or on The Lunch Tray.

[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.]

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.

Follow The Spork Report on Facebook, Twitter or on The Lunch Tray.

[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.]

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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Update on Pink Slime Petition: 5 Days, 134,000 Signatures

For those of you who don’t follow my main blog, The Lunch Tray, I wanted to update you on the Change.org petition started there last Tuesday (and discussed here on The Spork Report on Wednesday) which asks USDA to cease use of so-called “pink slime” in school food.

As of this writing, the start of Day Five of the petition, it has garnered 134,000 signatures.

Photo of ground beef processing.

“Pink slime” so dominated the news last week that it became one of the top Google searches and also trended on Twitter.  (Spork Report readers wishing to follow the discussion on Twitter should use the hashtag #pinkslime.  My Twitter handle is @thelunchtray.)

In addition, the petition (and the issue of pink slime generally) were widely covered by the news media.  Here’s a short list of some of the many pieces mentioning the petition: The DailyYahoo News, the Washington PostFood Safety NewsMSNBCCBS News, OC WeeklyParenting and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Meanwhile, both USDA and Beef Products Inc. felt the need to issue statements about Lean Beef Trimmings (here and here) and there have also been some inevitable backlash pieces asking if the pink slime “panic” is justified.  You can read those and decide what you think.

Finally, I’m writing an op-ed about this issue for the Houston Chronicle which I’ll share when/if it’s published.  In the meantime, please do read Nancy Heuhnergarth’s excellent post on why pink slime, even if safe (and she’s not conceding that point), is troubling to many Americans.

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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.]

Using Social Media To Get “Pink Slime” Out of School Food

Over on my main blog, The Lunch Tray, I’m getting quite an education in the awesome power of social media.

On Monday, the online publication the Daily reported that the USDA has purchased ground beef for use in the National School Lunch Program containing, collectively, 7 million pounds of the substance commonly known as “pink slime.”  For those who aren’t familiar with pink slime, it’s a product (officially called “Lean Beef Trimmings”) produced Beef Products, Inc., a processing plant in South Dakota.  BPI injects a mixture of cooking oil and fatty beef trimmings (formerly used only for pet food and rendering, not human consumption) with ammonia hydroxide in an attempt to remove E. coli and salmonella.  (Because of where these scraps come from on the cow’s carcass, they’re more likely to be infected with pathogens than other meat.)

After a damning exposé of BPI’s practices by the New York Times in December, 2009, followed by a graphic demonstration of pink slime by Jamie Oliver on his “Food Revolution” show last summer, there has been growing consumer concern with the use of pink slime in food products.  For this reason, fast food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell have agreed to stop using it in their food.
I had written about pink slime on The Lunch Tray in 2010 (“One Burger, Please, Extra Ammonia and Hold the E Coli“) and thought at that time that the USDA had decided to out an end to its use in school food.  But I was obviously mistaken, as the Daily story made clear.
I was outraged by the fact that American school children are being fed a product of questionable safety — and which wasn’t even regarded as fit for human consumption in the recent past —  so I decided to start my very first Change.org petition about it.  I posted the link on The Lunch Tray Tuesday morning, shared it on Facebook and Twitter, and then left the house to go about my day.
You can imagine my surprise when, hours later, the petition had garnered over 600 signatures.  By late afternoon, it had reached 1,000.  As of this writing, almost 3,500 people have signed on — and the number goes up every few minutes.  In the meantime, I’ve been interviewed about this issue by Channel Two News here in Houston, the petition has been mentioned in the Washington Post blog, and requests for more interviews are coming in.
I’ve been so gratified by this overwhelming response and hope that Spork Report readers will consider signing and sharing the petition as well.  And if you’d like more information on why pink slime has no place on our kids’ lunch trays, be sure to check out this excellent article posted by Tom Philpott today.

Before signing off, I’d like to make clear that although this is an HISD school food blog, I have no knowledge of whether the meat served to Houston students contains pink slime.  Indeed, because the federal government doesn’t require its labeling on ground beef, it’s very hard for any district to know whether or not the beef it uses contains this substance.

Follow The Spork Report on Facebook, Twitter or on The Lunch Tray.

[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.]