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.

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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.]

 

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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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