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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My Op-Ed in the Houston Chronicle re: HISD School Food Reform

In case you missed it, I had an op-ed in the Sunday edition of the Chronicle on school food in our district.  I urge our school officials to reconsider the outsourcing of HISD’s food to Aramark and to assess the feasibility of a self-operated food services department, with a return to more scratch cooking.

You can read the piece here.

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Is Aramark Good for Houston ISD School Food?

Yesterday’s New York Times Sunday Review section had a scathing critique of the growing privatization of school food through the hiring of food service management companies (FSMCs) such as Aramark, Sodexo and Chartwells.

Written by Lucy Komisar and entitled “How the Food Industry Eats Your Kid’s Lunch,” the piece points out FSMCs “cozy relationship” with major food manufacturers like Tyson, ConAgra and Pilgrim’s, in which districts pay these companies substantial fees to turn whole commodity foods provided free by the federal government (such as fruits, potatoes and raw poultry) into highly processed, far less nutritious foods (French fries, chicken nuggets, etc.).   Komisar reports that in return many FSMCs receive financial rebates from processors (which FSMCs are legally required to pass on to districts, although some have been fined heavily for failing to do so) or “prompt payment discounts,” which Komisar says “are really rebates under another name.”  (FMSC rebates have been discussed several times previously on The Lunch Tray, when I pointed readers to good reporting on the issue by school food blogger Ed Bruske.)

It’s a commonly held belief that FSMCs save school districts money, primarily by reducing labor costs.  (Here in Houston, organized labor was vehemently opposed to the hiring of Aramark by then-superintendent Rod Paige in 1997.)   And use of food processors is one way those costs are reduced:  it obviously takes more and better skilled labor to prepare and cook potentially dangerous raw proteins like whole chicken parts than it does to simply heat up fully cooked nuggets from Tyson.  (This trade-off was examined in further detail in The Lunch Tray’s recent coverage of a landmark purchase of raw chicken parts by Chicago Public Schools.)

But Komisar, citing a study conducted by Roland Zullo at the University of Michigan, questions the notion that FSMCs (and, implicitly, their heavy reliance on processed foods) save schools money.  The Zullo study, from 2008, looked at various costs associated with school food including transportation, labor, food costs, and supplies and found that Michigan schools using FSMCs spent less on labor and food but more money on fees to the FSMC and on supplies, resulting in “no substantive economic savings.”

That finding that runs counter to popularly held beliefs about FSMCs, supposedly models of efficiency, and, indeed, Zullo found that when school district officials were simply asked about cost savings, many were under the impression that their FSMC was saving their district money, even when that was not the case.  On the other hand, it’s also important to remember that such cost/benefit analyses are likely to be highly district-specific, as labor (and other) costs can be significantly greater in one geographic area than in another.

Yet the Zullo study raises important questions, ones which should be answered in any district using a FSMC.  Here in HISD, for example, I wonder whether anyone has recently evaluated whether using Aramark is in fact saving the district money — not compared to the way Food Services was operated back in 1997, but as currently compared to comparable urban districts that are self-operating.  What percentage of HISD’s government commodities are being sent to food processors, and how much are we paying in processing fees?  Do those processing fees, along with Aramark’s yearly management fee and any increased costs for disposable serving supplies (which, according to the Zullo study, may be needed with fewer workers on a serving line) outweigh likely savings in labor costs and food procurement?

And finally, but most importantly, even if the district is saving money by retaining Aramark, is it true, as Komisar says, that we are doing so at the expense of food quality — and, therefore, our students’ health?

I don’t have these answers and I’m certainly not condemning Aramark’s performance in HISD based on Komisar’s piece.  But I do think these are important questions that need to be asked, and I’ll be contacting both our school board members and Food Services for more information.

I’ll let you know what I’m able to find out.

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Should HISD Offer Pizza to Kids on a Daily Basis?

The big news in the school food world this week is the fact that corporate lobbyists are apparently succeeding in their efforts in Congress to keep pizza classified as a school food “vegetable.”   (Yesterday’s Lunch Tray post on the issue is here, including a link to a Change.org petition if you’d like to register your protest.)

But there’s also a subsidiary issue related to pizza on school lunch trays, and with all the pizza buzz in the air this seems like a good time to raise it:  namely, the frequency with which pizza should be appearing on school menus at all.

Should this be an HISD student's lunch -- every single day?

Here in HISD, the district offers our middle and high schoolers pizza  every single day and on today’s Lunch Tray I discuss why this practice concerns me.  Check out the post and let me know what you think.

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Should Pizza Count as a School Food “Vegetable”?

Under current school food regulations, the tomato paste in the topping counts as a vegetable, and lobbyists for big frozen pizza manufacturers are working hard to make sure it stays that way.

You can read more about the controversy on today’s Lunch Tray.

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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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A Follow-Up to the Infamous “Cheetos-and-Nacho-Sauce” Photo

In my first post on this blog I shared a rather shocking photo of one child’s recent “lunch” in an HISD cafeteria: bright red, baked Flaming Hot Cheetos doused with nacho cheese sauce.  I didn’t want to kick off The Spork Report on such a negative note, but that photo conveyed better than any words my longstanding concern about some of the foods sold by HISD to our kids.

So I decided to go ahead and post the photo in an effort to start a conversation.  And in the past three weeks there has been a lot of discussion of those now-infamous red Cheetos — in the blogosphere, in private emails to me, and even among some HISD school officials.  It seemed worthwhile, therefore, to loop back to clarify some points which may be causing confusion and to raise some additional questions for your consideration.

Was that concoction actually an entree served by HISD?  

HISD, mercifully, is not putting on its menu a mixture of Cheetos and melted cheese sauce and calling it lunch.  While I thought I made this clear in the body of my post, a few readers seemed confused, so let me reiterate:  the chips and nacho sauce in the photo were not offered to kids on the lunch line, but were instead purchased separately by the child from the district’s “a la carte” menu and mixed together by him/her at the table.

What do you mean by “a la carte” foods?

A la carte foods are items sold by the district entirely apart from (and in actual competition with) the federally subsidized school meal as a money-making venture.  You can see a complete list of what HISD sells a la carte here, along with some 2010-11 nutritional information here.

Are there any nutritional standards for the a la carte foods sold by HISD?

HISD Food Services has voluntarily adopted for its a la carte foods the nutritional standards imposed on schools meeting the Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge.  Under these guidelines, items like the Baked Flaming Hot Cheetos in the photo are acceptable.

So, if HISD is already meeting nutritional standards, what’s your problem?

Well, first let’s take a closer look at some of these a la carte foods.  In addition to the Baked Flaming Hot Cheetos, our district also makes available to our kids items like Froot Loops, Corn Pops, Rice Krispies treats, chili cheese dogs, fried chicken sandwiches, pizza slices, beef taco nachos, Frito pie, four varieties of Doritos, quarter pound cheeseburgers, and sliders.  To meet the aforementioned nutritional guidelines, these foods generally have to be doctored in some way, like baking the Cheetos and Doritos instead of frying them or reducing portion size.  But while these foods might be “less bad” for you, you’d be hard-pressed to find a dietician or health professional who would recommend them as a regular part of a growing child’s diet.

More important, however, is the fact that the vast majority of HISD students are unaware of these nutritional modifications; to our children, there’s little difference between HISD’s beef taco nachos (which, I believe, use reduced-fat cheese and baked chips) and the beef taco nachos they get off campus (except for the fact that the latter may taste better).   The result?  Our schools are implicitly telling kids that it’s perfectly OK to eat these sorts of “carnival foods” every single day — even in an era in which one in three children are already overweight or obese — and many of our students are doing just that.

But nutritional considerations are not my only objection to our a la carte food.  Here are a few more issues to consider, topics I hope to discuss in more detail in future Spork Report posts:

  • Selling a la carte items like burgers and pizza creates an economic incentive to offer the same types of foods on the federally reimbursable menu.  Just take a look at HISD’s high school menu and you’ll see what I mean:  a monotonous array of pizza, burgers, and mostly fried-item sandwiches, day after day after day.
  • Parents often have little or no oversight over their children’s a la carte purchases and, indeed, many are shocked when they visit a school cafeteria and see the foods being made available to their children.
  • The sale of a la carte foods like the ones described above conflicts markedly with any nutrition education our children may receive as part of the school curriculum.  The school talks the talk in the classroom but walks an entirely different walk in the cafeteria.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, offering two separate options for school food – the federal school meal program and an a la carte menu — has been shown to create painful stigma among kids who must, for financial reasons, rely on the school meal.  (Indeed, it’s well documented that some of these children will choose to go hungry rather than be seen buying the “uncool” federal meal.)  In a district like ours, in which over 80% of our students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, this is a matter of real concern.

So, is there any alternative to selling a la carte foods?

Yes.  Some districts (and some states) have simply done away with a la carte altogether.  San Francisco USD (which offers no a la carte food in its cafeterias) imposes a “no empty calories” standard to food sold in vending machines, so that “slightly less bad for you” junk food like the Baked Flaming Hot Cheetos simply can’t be sold.

There may well be a negative financial impact to discontinuing the sale of a la carte junk foods.  In SFUSD, for example, the school board has in the past contributed funds to cover a food services shortfall; in an era of steep budget cuts, that’s a hard pill to swallow.  But to turn the question around, we have to ask ourselves:  is it ever OK to raise revenue at the expense of our children’s health?

In the end, what is HISD’s “food philosophy?”

Ultimately, the issue of a la carte touches on the larger philosophical question of how we want to feed the children in our district,* both in the a la carte line and in the reimbursable meal line.   Are we content to continue to offer the “doctored junk foods” that are popular with kids but which may contribute to obesity now — and which seem very likely to engender lifelong poor eating habits?

HISD Food Services, in recently adopting a mission statement proclaiming its desire to become “a leader in child nutrition and wellness by providing the highest level of nutrition possible on our campuses,” seems to want to do better.  And at the elementary level (where much less a la carte food is sold), we’re already seeing promising movement in the right direction, including more whole grain offerings, more fresh fruit, the introduction of salad bars and a more varied menu.  (More on all of that to come in future Spork Report posts.)

The question is whether the district is willing to do right by our middle and high school students as well.  Is it willing to greatly improve the a la carte menu — or even ditch it altogether?  Are we willing to take a chance that even older students might eat something other than a burger or a slice of pizza?  Or are we writing these older kids off as a lost cause?

And finally, a word to HISD Food Services

As soon as I posted the Cheetos-and-nacho-sauce photo three weeks ago, I feared I’d dealt an unfair blow to the many well-meaning, talented and committed school food professionals working in our district.  Through my membership on the HISD Food Services Parent Advisory Committee, I’ve gotten to know some of these men and women over the last year and a half, and I recognize the significant hurdles they face in trying to feed over 200,000 kids a day, many from impoverished backgrounds, on a limited budget and under strict governmental regulations.

One child’s Cheetos-and-nacho-sauce lunch is hardly representative of every meal served in our district, or even the majority of HISD meals, and it was never my intent to imply otherwise.  But it is my goal to reach the day when no child in HISD can call that utterly non-nutritive concoction “lunch” and be able to say that the district itself provided him or her with the means to do so.

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*Some Spork Report readers have taken issue with the very notion of the federal government being in the business of feeding children, believing this to be solely a parental responsibility.  My view is this:  the National School Lunch Program has been in existence since the 1940’s and it isn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future.  So rather than getting into “Nanny State” debates about the proper role of government, my focus on this blog will always be purely pragmatic; if the school lunch program is here to stay, let’s talk about how to make it better.