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.]

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HISD Undergoing Intensive School Food Audit This Week

HISD’s Food Services is undergoing this week a routine but intensive “Coordinated Review Effort” (or CRE), in which state and federal authorities will be evaluating all aspects of the district’s school meal program.

Auditors from USDA and the Texas Department of Agriculture will be reviewing 22 pre-selected HISD school lunch programs, ten breakfast programs, the district’s Fruit & Vegetable program and its afterschool snack program  The audit, which is conducted in HISD every two years, will include a review of the department’s financials, the accuracy with which it determines student eligibility for free or reduced price meals, and its actual operations: food preparation, food safety, compliance with nutritional standards, compliance with civil rights law and more.  If violations are found during the CRE, federal funding can be withheld from the district.

At our January Food Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting, representatives of Food Services reported to us that the department has been undergoing intensive preparation for the CRE, including conducting pre-audits and staff training where needed.  PAC members were also given a chance to conduct a “mock audit” at West University Elementary’s cafeteria, dividing into groups and examining various aspects of its meal service.

In other school food news, tomorrow First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will be announcing the long-awaited new school food nutritional standards promulgated as part of the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.  I’ll have news about that development on The 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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